Friday, December 31, 2010

Heroes Wanted (Part 7)

John sat atop his gray mare, one hand on the pommel, and stared down the ridge at the structure below. It wasn’t much of a house. From this distance, it looked like a square clapboard frame that held only one room, two at the most. Spiraling up from a rock chimney, a wisp of smoke trailed through the air and smelled of mesquite wood, and he wondered what Lois had been cooking. More important, however, he wondered what he would say when he finally faced her.

It had been a long time since he last saw the woman he once swore he would marry. It wasn’t so much that Lois had ever said anything; it was in the way she looked at him, with a wink and a smile, like it was only an issue of time that separated their souls and that time was growing shorter with each passing day. It was destiny.

His father didn’t much believe in ideas like that. Growing up, raised to help with the daily details of the so-called good work, John listened as his father proclaimed that fate and destiny were like two saloon whores who sang songs and promised much but always left a man alone to wallow in his beer of could-haves and might-have-beens. The only destiny a man could count on was that he was headed for one place or the other when he died and that was it. Still, Lois had been the dream John held on to, the one he never gave up in spite of the wood pounding and spittle his dad had to offer. She was his salvation, and John figured he would face even the gates of hell as long as he had Lois by his side.

At the time, he hadn’t wanted too much, really, just a small place out on the plains where he could raise cattle and have a family, sleep with the woman of his dreams and provide her warmth and comfort on those long winter nights when the wind howled through the roof timbers. But as it turned out, life never looked at John with favor. Everett Wilcox had changed all that. Everett with his reckless ways. Everett with such self-assurance that he could do anything he wanted and have anyone.

John grabbed the reins. With the heels of his boots, he tapped the mare’s sides lightly.

“All right, Sadie,” he said. “No better time than now, I guess.”

The horse responded with a nod of its head as it plodded ahead, slowly descending the hill.

As they approached the house, a woman stepped through the front entry and leaned against the doorpost. She wore her hair pulled back and tied up in a roll behind her head, and in spite of the heat she clutched a white shawl around her shoulders. The dress she wore was plain and simply made and held the color of a clear blue sky.

A few feet from the house, he stopped the mare.

Lois smiled and slowly shook her head.

“Well, well, if it isn’t John Colton,” she said. “Didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”

Her voice sounded as smooth and relaxed as remembered it--something he wished he felt at the moment. During the long ride over to Wilson, and then out to this place, he had thought of all the things he could say. He dreamed up each word, the rise and fall of each syllable, like a lyric of poetry. He wanted to express all of the things that had been left unsaid, let it gush out as a long soliloquy of pain and regret; but now, sitting on his horse, Lois standing in front of him, John found that none of those words came.

A long moment passed between them, both saying things with their eyes that their mouths couldn’t speak. Finally, Lois broke the silence.

“I heard rumor you had taken off with the cavalry. That you were fighting the Indians out there somewhere in the Arizona territory.”

John shook his head. “I got no issue with the Indians.”

She nodded. “I’d also heard that you’d headed south, crossed over into Mexico and was shot down by a couple of Rurales, something to do with a young señorita.”

“It appears that you’ve been listening to the wrong people.”

She smiled. “Well just last month, I heard that you were the sheriff over in Sundance. And by the looks of the star on your chest, I’m guessing at least that rumor turned out to be true.”

He didn’t say anything to that.

After a moment, she pointed toward the side of the house. “Well, why don’t you tie up your horse and come on inside? I’ll make you a cup of coffee.” She turned to go in the house, but stopped up short. “You look like you could use a drink of something strong.”

That one stopped him and at first he wasn’t sure how he should respond. Had she heard about his drinking? Did Everett share that with her? But then he saw the humor in her eyes and figured he must have looked terrible, which was most likely given he’d just spent the night in a jailhouse with a prisoner who wouldn’t shut his mouth.

He nodded. “I could use some coffee.”

As she stepped inside and he tied off the horse, John thought she hadn’t changed much at all over the years. Not one bit. In fact, it felt like the years were only a dream, and he was still looking at the same girl he’d loved only yesterday.

He walked around the side of the house and paused at the doorway. He stared out across the way. It would be so easy to ride back up that hill, he thought. Just move on, be the sheriff of a small dirt-water town and let Lois live her life. But then he remembered that night and why he came, and he figured there was no life worth living until, like Everett had suggested, he settled all debts.

And this was just one of them.

Friday, December 24, 2010

#FridayFlash - Heroes Wanted (Part 6)

In Wilson, it didn’t take long for John to find out more information. The General Store owner, a grey haired man with stubble for a beard, whose full name was William Henry Wadsworth Bishop, but who also liked to be called Hank, said, yes indeed, he’d heard of the new preacher man, a feller who lived with his young bride about a mile or so northwest of town. “Just follow the river,” he said, “and you’ll eventually run into ‘em.”

John thanked the store owner, making sure to call him Hank but not believing it to be that big of an issue one way or the other. After all, if the man wanted to be called Hank, why not just say so? Why go on about his birth name like it really mattered to a perfect stranger?

Heading north now, John felt a gust of air. He smelled the earthly scent of prairie dust and remembered how it smelled that same way fifteen years ago. In fact, there were many things he remembered about that night. How the moon, blazing like fire, rose up out of the east. And how in the west, lightning sparked and lit up the clouds that boiled into the sky. He remembered the clop-clop-clop of horse hooves as Everett and he rode out of town, Everett showing off the gun he’d stolen out of his daddy’s war chest. At one time, Everett’s father had been a sergeant in the Tenth Cavalry stationed in Fort Concho. Since his wife’s death, though, he’d been nothing more than a broken down cowpoke who spent most of his time, and his earnings, drinking whiskey in the local saloon--that is, when he wasn’t cussing Everett or accusing him of being the death of the best woman who ever lived.

John remembered Everett bragging about the gun.

“I done shot me a coyote with it once already.”

“Really,” John said, amazed at this new revelation. “When?”

“Other night. My daddy and me rode out after one that Mr. Dix said was attacking his herd.” Everett spun the gun around his finger. He grabbed the grip and raised it up, taking aim. “Shot him from over a hundred paces, probably two.”

John thought about that. “Wow,” he said. “How’d you get that close?”

They rode in silence for a moment until Everett said, “’Cause he was too busy eatin’ on one of Mr. Dix’s steers, John, what else?”

John shrugged. “I dunno. Strikes me as unusual, though.”

Everett turned and stared hard at John. “You sayin’ I’m a liar?”

John looked away. “I didn’t mean any by it, Everett, I was just asking a question."

Everett stuffed the pistol down inside his pants. “Yeah, well, don’t question me again.”

They cleared the Mill Creek Bridge and continued riding into the night. In the distance, John heard the lowing of cattle as they finally crossed into Mr. Dix’s ranch, a twelve hundred acre spread of grassland and spidery cholla cactus.

To change the subject, John said, “So how’s Lois?”

Everett turned and gave him another hard look. “She’s fine, John. Why’re you asking?”

“Just something to talk about, I guess.” He reached up and adjusted his hat. “I mean, how’re you two getting along, now that her daddy told you to leave her alone?”

Everett looked away. “Her daddy ain’t the final say.”

“Really.” John felt his curiosity rising up, but didn’t want to press it. Asking too many questions could lead Everett to asking a few of his own.

Everett pulled up on his reigns. “Whoa.”

John stopped his horse.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Over there.” Everett pointed. “You see it?”

John looked into the darkness. About a hundred feet away, he saw a dark shape flopping around on the ground.

“I don’t believe it,” Everett said.

“What? What is it?”

Everett smiled. “My coyote trap actually worked.”

“Your what?”

“A coyote trap. I done caught me one.”

John stared into the darkness.

“So what’re you gonna do?”

Everett pulled the pistol out. “What do you think I’m gonna do?” He fired off two rounds, each shot followed by a shrill scream as bullets struck hard rock. The dark form flopped around furiously.

“You got to get closer, Everett.”

Everett looked at him. “You think you can do better, huh?”

“That’s not what--”

“First I’m a liar and now you’re better than me?”

“No, Everett, I--”

“Well, here’s your chance, cowboy. Pull your rifle and you hit it.”

John shook his head.

Everett pointed the pistol at John. “You better pull that thing, you know what’s good for you.”

“Look, Everett, I got nothin’ to prove.”

Everett cocked the hammer. “But I do.”

John looked at the gun. “Don’t do this.”

Everett pulled the gun back. “You scared, John.”

John remained quiet for a moment. Finally, he said, “C’mon, Everett, this is dumb.”

Everett smiled. “Tell you what, I’ll even be a gentleman. I’ll put a wager on it.”


“Enough talk. Now’s the time to put up, though I don't think you can. Bet you money you can’t do it, John. Not from here, anyways.”

John stared into the distance at the dark figure. It had finally stopped thrashing around.

“One shot,” Everett added. “You hit it, and then I’ll know you’re a better man than me.”

John took a deep breath as he thought about it. This was the way it had always been between them, Everett flaring up and John taking a step back. And just for once, money or not, wouldn’t it be nice to stop taking those backward steps?

Riding through the plains, the hot sun burning at his face now, John watched himself pull the rifle from the scabbard. He heard the shot ring out in his mind, and he stopped his horse.

Leaning to the side, he threw up again and again until nothing else came out.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Circle of Friends

My good friend Paige has bestowed a nice gift upon me: The Circle of Friends award. Since she didn't know of any rules that applied to it, for the sake of convenience I'm going to apply the same criteria:

  1. Identify your friends, and
  2. Link back to the one who gave the award.

Here, then, are my circle of friends, writers who have given me great help in the past, both through first reads and insightful criticism, and to whom I owe so much:

  1. Greta Igl
  2. John Towler (No blog, but is now an editor over at Every Day Fiction)
  3. Linda Simoni-Wastila
  4. Jon Strother
  5. Jane Banning (No blog, but much of her poetry has been published by Long Story Short)

My hat is off to all of you. You have been great friends along the journey.

Until next time...

Friday, December 17, 2010

#Friday Flash - "Heroes Wanted" (Part 5)

The man Hayworth found inside wasn’t John Colton, the current and soon to be former sheriff of Sundance. Instead, he found a portly man with a bald head, a few strands of hair raked across the top. He was wearing a blue shirt and sat at the sheriff’s desk, and at the sound of the door crashing in, the sight of two guns pointed straight at him, the man’s face turned ashen. Hayworth wasn’t sure if he’d even breathed in the last ten seconds.

Hayworth glanced around the jailhouse. Off to the side, seated on a straw mattress with plate of something in his lap, Everett sat in the cell, smiling like he'd just heard a joke.

Turning back to the man at the desk, Hayworth said, “You’re Henry Clausen, the livery owner, right?”

The man’s eyes moved left to right as if he were looking for someone else to give him the answer. Sweat beaded up on his slick forehead; it stained the pits of his shirt. A mass of tobacco bulged beneath the skin of his left cheek and bobbed once as he swallowed. Finally, he nodded his head.

“Why are you here?”

“Th-th-the Sheriff asked me to sit in.”

“And where’s the Sheriff at now?”

Clausen shook his head. “Didn’t say. He just saddled his horse and rode out.”

Behind Clausen, a dog lowered its head, bared its teeth and growled. The hair along its spine rose up into a long cord.

In the cell, Everett threw his plate to the floor. He brushed his hands and said, “One thing about this town, while they ain’t so good on hospitality and manners, they at least know how to cook up a mighty fine meal.”

“It doesn’t look like they know how to let a man wear his own clothes, either,” Hayworth said.

Everett looked down at himself. “Yeah, that.” He snorted. “John’s way of being funny, I suppose.”


Everett shrugged. “I told you, we go back a ways.”

“Well, it don’t look so funny to me.”

“You ain’t looking at from his side.”

“And you are?”

Everett shook his head. “Nah.”

Hayworth turned back to Henry Clausen.

“You’re still here?”

Clausen looked confused and Everett laughed.

“You don’t seem to understand the situation, Henry. Don’t you have a family you love, a life you’d like to keep on living?”

Clausen nodded.

“Then I’d advise you to hightail it before my friend loses all patience. He’s already got the guns out, and I can tell you he doesn’t like to put ‘em away without shooting something.”

The man jumped up. He shuffled past Hayworth and then bolted through the door.

“Man was in too deep,” Hayworth said. “Didn’t seem to know it ‘til just now.”

“Which goes to prove what we always say,” Everett added. “Some people are just too stupid to live.” His face hardened then. “And what took you so long?”

Hayworth stepped toward the desk. The dog growled again. He glanced at it, stomped a boot on the floor, and the animal scurried under the desk. It barked a couple of times. Turning to Everett, he said, “When you didn’t return to the camp, I wasn’t sure what to think, so I decided to ride on in, ask around.”

“And you spent all morning asking questions?”

“No, I talked to Francine first.”

Everett slowly leaned back, laughing. “I can see it all now. How is she doing?”

“I imagine she don’t have much else to say.”

As Everett shook his head, Hayworth looked the cell over.

“How 'bout we get you out of there?”

Everett nodded. “And get my clothes back. And after that? I've got some business with the Sheriff.”

“You heard Clausen, he doesn’t know where the man went.”

Everett smiled.

“I do.”


John rode west, his back feeling the heat and weight of the mid-morning sun. He wasn’t sure what he would say to Lois when he found her, but he knew he had to find her just the same. It had been fifteen, maybe sixteen years since he last saw her--too long to live in the shadow of the past.

Have you settled all your debts?

That was the question Everett had asked. Like he knew all along how John felt about things, how he felt about Lois. From the moment he first saw the warmth in her smile, the twinkle in her eyes when she laughed, the delicate skin of her cheeks, John had felt an attraction like he never had before. And hearing her voice, calm like a slow moving stream, as she talked about literature and men whose names he didn’t recognize, John knew he would stop and listen to her all day if she wanted it. Forget about the chores--the floors that needed to be swept, pews that needed to be dusted; when Lois was around, the rest of it ceased to exist. Which was shocking in a way, come to think of it. But it wasn’t like he could have stopped to talk with his father about it, the man so pure and focused that John knew he would have sounded like a braying mule had he even tried to explain.

In the end, John found he couldn’t talk to anyone about his feelings. As it turned out, Everett had seen Lois too and made the first move. So, John stuffed everything away and locked it up tight.


Riding along, John heard that voice just as clear as he did on that night so long ago.

Bet you money you can’t do it, John. Not from here, anyways.

At the time, it was a bet worth taking. As he cleared the hill and looked down on the dusty town of Wilson, though, John once again felt the heaviness on his chest, the sick feeling in his gut.

How strange it was that life could turn things upside down.

Friday, December 10, 2010

#FridayFlash - "Heroes Wanted" (Part 4)

Beasley’s Hotel and Saloon, a two-story clapboard structure next door to the Livery, was the seat of attraction in Sundance. Angus Beasley, an Irishman who moved out west to put some space between him and those “cheap, thuggish bastards” in Boston, chose the spot with the future in mind. “Anyone who’s anyone in this town’ll be stoppin’ at the Livery,” he once said. “Men’ll be needin’ a drink while they’re waitin’. And whether they’re a waitin’ on a horse or just passin’ the wee hours with one of the ladies, it doesn’t matter. Everyone needs a drink now and then. I just want to be there at both times.”

John opened the front door and stepped into the lobby separating the hotel from the saloon. Across the room, above the swinging doors leading into the saloon, Beasley had mounted a wooden plaque, the name Beasley’s Cove carved in large block letters. John didn’t understand that one. There was no lake or pond within miles of Sundance. In fact, the only body of water nearby, outside of a muddy creek, was a trough out front for the animals.

“It don’t matter what I call it,” Beasley had said when asked. “I could call it Buffalo Corkers and nobody’d a say thing, long as they could still get a sip of whiskey or a glass of beer.”

Standing in the lobby, staring at the sign, John imagined Beasley was right. Outside of farming and ranching, the beer and whisky drove the wagon in this town. It drove many other things, too, as well he knew.

He stepped into the saloon and found Beasley behind the bar engaged in his daily routine of wiping the glasses down with a dish rag. Beasley looked up as John walked across the floor. He grinned.

“Top of the mornin’ to you, Sheriff. What brings you in so early? The sun’s not even up full yet.”

“I need to see if your cook can stir up some eggs, maybe a slice of bacon and a biscuit.”

Beasley nodded. He placed the freshly wiped glass on the back bar and said, “Would this be for you or your prisoner?”

John looked down. He rubbed the back of his neck.

“Yes, about that. I’m sorry if I caused you any trouble last night.”

Beasley shrugged. “What’s it to me? Mr. Wilcox had already filled his belly. I’d say you put more of a damper on his evenin’ than mine.”

“Mr. Wilcox, huh?” John shook head. “A man like that and you have to dignify him?”

“I keep fairly simple terms, Sheriff. As long as they drink without givin’ me any trouble, then what business do I have to bother them?”

“And if they decide to bring some trouble?”

Beasley reached under the counter. He produced a double-barrel shotgun and placed it on the bar.

“Then I’ll deal with it.”

John smirked. With a shotgun and a sly tongue, Beasley was indeed a man who could take care of himself and say what he needed. He glanced over his shoulder at the stairs leading to the second floor.

“How’s Francine?”

“I don’t know,” Beasley said. “Haven’t seen or heard her all mornin’. My guess is she’ll be sleeping it in today, along with everyone else.”

John nodded. Thinking about it now, he hated the way he had handled it--that had been the whiskey--but if he couldn’t uphold the law, then what good was he as a sheriff?

“Please extend my apologies to your guest,” John said.

He turned and walked away from the bar.

“Can you have your cook deliver the breakfast to the jail?”

“Sure,” Beasley said. “So, we’ll be settlin’ up later then?”

John stopped. He furrowed his brow. “What was that?”

“You may be the Sheriff,” Beasley said, “but I still got a business to run.”

John nodded, thinking about Beasley’s question. “Don’t worry, Angus. I’ll take care of it.”

Stepping through the lobby and out of the hotel, John turned and headed next door.


Hayworth quietly closed the door. He walked down the hall and took the outside stairs down to the street. The sun was up and by the looks of it half the morning had already passed away. After Francine told him all that had happened, he took a long look at her half naked body and decided to stay for a while. Sure Everett might be a little pissed, but what did it matter? It wasn’t like the man was going anywhere anytime soon.

He looked down the street and saw the jail house, a few people meandering around. Then, while he took a moment to put his hat on, Hayworth mapped out a plan in his mind. At the hitching post, he un-wrapped the reigns for his horse and walked down the street. It needed to be quick, he told himself. The Sheriff didn’t need an opportunity to think about what was coming. Give him that, and the idiot just might pull a gun. And he was dumb, no doubt about that. He had to be. Anyone who held the notion he could arrest Everett Wilcox without consequence was either extremely brave or out of his mind and Hayworth had never seen this sheriff show any spine.

He stopped in front of the jail and wrapped the horse reigns once around the post. For a jail, it wasn’t much, just a square adobe with bars for some windows, a single pane of glass in front.

On the wooden porch in front of the door, he drew both pistols and cocked the hammers. A young boy walking by stopped then, and Hayworth told him he’d better find his momma and find her right now. The boy ran away.

Lifting a leg to kick the door in, he thought, We gonna have some fun. Only when the door snapped open, he didn’t find what he expected.

Not at all.

Friday, December 3, 2010

#FridayFlash - "Heroes Wanted" (Part 3)

John tossed the empty bottle back into the drawer.

Everett smiled faintly. “The bottle may be empty, but you’re still a drunk. Always have been.”

John shook his head. “Not always.”

Everett laughed. “Oh yeah, that’s right. Back when your daddy was alive.”

“Leave him out of this.”

“Boy, he would have skinned you, he ever found you with booze.”

“That’s enough.”

“No telling how he’d react now, he knew how you turned out.”

John snatched the Remington from against the wall and pointed it toward the cell.

“I said that’s enough.”

Everett leaned forward, his forearms on both knees. “What’re gonna do, John, shoot me?”

John took a deep breath, let it out slowly. He closed his eyes. Once again, he’d let Everett take him across the line.

“No,” he said finally. He shook his head and laid the rifle across the desk. “I’m not like you.”

Everett pursed his lips. “No. You never have been. That was always the problem.”

“No, the problem was your willingness to kill a man with no thought otherwise. To you it was like riding a horse on a warm summer day. It didn’t matter who. Or that he didn’t do anything to you. All you needed was to listen to your cold heart.”

Everett’s smile widened.

“See, I knew there was something more than a new-found concern over a dead goat farmer.” He leaned back and sucked at his teeth. “You must think I’m dumb or something, but I noticed right away how you never answered my question.”

John didn’t say anything.

Everett said, “You still haven’t gotten over that night, have you? In fact, that night has probably haunted you every night since.”

John stared at the desk drawer. Why did he have to pour it all out? Boy, another drink would go down good right now.

He shook the thought off and reached into the drawer. Grabbing the bottle, he tossed it into the belly of the wood stove where glass popped against metal and shattered into pieces.

Everett chuckled. “Touched a sore spot there, huh?”

John turned in his chair and faced the window. Outside, the sky had finally turned the color of an old bruise.

“You can say all you want to, Everett. It don’t mean a thing.”

“I think it does,” Everett said. “So tell me. Have you settled all your debts?”

John sighed. “What’re you talking about now?”

“Aw, don’t play dumb. This is me you’re talking to, your old killin’ buddy.”

“We are not buddies. As I said, I’m not like you. I never was.”

“That’s right,” Everett said. "Even when it came to Lois, you were never half the man I was.”

“What’s she got to do with anything?”

At that, Everett’s smile was so big it showed a mouth full of crooked, yellow teeth. “The reason I asked had you settled up everything. Because if you haven’t, you still got time.”

John narrowed his eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Everett’s face looked amused. “You really don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?”

“Lois. She’s back. Been back, actually, going on a month or two now. But I guess you been too busy drinking away your miseries and playing sheriff to notice something like that.”

John shook his head. “If Lois had come to Sundance, I would have noticed it.”

“Did I say she’d returned to Sundance? Nah, she’s over in Wilson. Apparently shacked up with some preacher man who likes to go around sharing the Gospel, trying to save people for Jesus. Tried to save me too, but I told I was having none of it. Heaven doesn’t have any place for a man like me. He told me it wasn’t true, and I said, ‘Save it for someone else, preacher, someone who might actually place a gold piece in the plate for ya.’” Everett snorted. “He didn’t think that was too funny. I certainly did though.” Everett raised his eyebrows. “Oh, and there’s something else you might like to know. In fact, I think you’ll appreciate the irony of it. Her husband, the feller who rides around preachin’ to anyone who’ll listen? Turns out, he also goes by the name of John. John Summerfield. Now, ain’t that a stitch?”

“Good for her,” John said, fighting against the emotions rising up within him. “I still don’t see your point. Lois has got nothing to do with your being in jail.”

“So you say.”

John stood. “And I’ve done all the talking I want to this morning.” He grabbed the Remington and walked toward the door.

Everett said, “Where you going?”

John looked out the window.

“The sun’s almost up, and you said you were hungry. I best get you something to eat.”

“Uh-huh.” Everett chuckled some more. “When you see her, tell Lois I said howdy, okay?”


She couldn’t believe how real the dream had been. Even now, slipping into consciousness, the hint of smoke and firewood tickled at her nose. She had been at her mother’s house, back in Abilene, her mother the wife of a general and what Francine would later learn also the part-time lover of a young corporal who liked to ride more than horses out on the prairie. She had been trying to tell her mother about the soiled clothes, crying because she knew there would be another beating involved, when the smell of smoke rose up around her. Fire licked at her flesh, boiling it into blisters. And, then she heard her mother’s voice; only it didn’t sound like her mother at all, but something dark and feral.



In the darkness of her room, the voice called out again and brought her fully awake.

“C’mon Francine, time to wake up.”

Though she couldn’t see him, she felt him and smelled him, and she knew that voice. Hayworth.

She heard the click of gun’s hammer, felt the cold steel against press against her temple.

“We need to talk.”