Friday, January 28, 2011

#FridayFlash - Bethesda

Atticus watched as Horatius dismounted his horse. The Centurion repositioned his armor and gave Atticus a wink, a smile. As if to say this would be something important, another one of his life lessons, so pay attention and learn. Atticus nodded.

The crowd of Jews reluctantly parted--some with looks of disgust on their faces, others with seething hatred in their eyes--as Horatius stepped into the shadow of the portico. He stopped in front of a group of men and stared at them. A few moments ago, bursts of angry voices could be heard from a distance, but now only the hiss of a summer breeze, snaking through the columns, graced Atticus’s ears.

Horatius said, “What is the meaning of this?” his voice harsh and commanding.

The men glanced at one another, clearly unsure who would speak on their behalf. Finally, one of them stepped forward.

Horatius gripped the hilt of his sword. “Did I say you could approach me?”

The man jumped back and glanced away. Several women in the crowd gasped; a few whimpered. Atticus smiled. The tone of the leader’s voice projected his contempt for these filthy creatures, and it was something to behold as the anger in their faces was quickly replaced with fear. Now that, Atticus thought, is a good lesson. Show them the might of your word, the strength of your spirit, and they will cower like dogs.

“Forgive me,” the man said. “I have forgotten my place.”

“Indeed you have,” Horatius said.

Atticus’s smile deepened.

Horatius waited a moment longer before saying, “Why were you shouting? Do you not know the law forbids demonstrations like this?”

“We were not shouting against Caesar,” another man said.

“Then what?”

“We were arguing who should be first into the pool.” The man pointed down. “This man, or that woman.”

Atticus leaned forward in the saddle for a better view. Two elderly people, their bodies crippled, were dressed in rags and lying on the floor near the pool. The man had wisps of snow white hair and an unkempt beard. His flesh was covered in sores. His bones threatened to pierce the skin. The woman was covered from head to ankles, but still it was clear that something was wrong. Craziness filled her eyes; her mouth babbled on unintelligently.

“Why should it matter?” Horatius said. He pointed toward the pool. “There is enough water for both of them.”

“But sir,” the first man said, “only the first person will be healed.”

Horatius looked from one man to the other. “The first person?”

The man nodded. “When the waters are stirred by the angel of God.”

Horatius stood quiet for a moment. Finally, he said, “Indeed,” and glanced over his shoulder. His eyes narrowed.

Atticus shrugged. Trying to understand these Jews--their strange customs and beliefs--was an act of mindless futility. Like the slaughter of innocent animals, supposedly to cleanse people of their sins, and then cooking the meat into charred remains on an open fire. What a waste. With so many women and children starving, these people would rather oblige a senseless ritual than silence the clamor of hungry lips. Still, it gave many in the ranks something to talk about, and he guessed there would be a lively conversation around the fire pit tonight.

Horatius gave Atticus a smile. Then, to the men, he said, “Well, by all means, let’s make sure at least one of them receives his heavenly blessing.”

The man’s frail body hung limply as Horatius reached down and picked him up. Horatius then walked over, stepped into the edge of the pool, and threw the man into the water. There was a splash, followed by a collective groan from the crowd. A couple of the men scurried forward, arms outstretched.

“Stay out of the pool,” Horatius shouted. He drew his sword. “Unless you want this water to be full of blood, too.”

Atticus stood in the stirrups, straining for a better view. The water rippled momentarily before the surface settled down. People gathered around, all eyes fixed on the pool. Some used their hands to cover their mouths; others balled them into fists. Everyone waited, but the old man never surfaced. Then, the wailing began, starting with a young woman before it spread throughout the crowd.

A moment later, Horatius walked out. He stopped in front of his horse, turned and shouted, “It seems the waters don’t heal after all,” and then spun around. Looking up at Atticus, a smile on his face, he said, “These idiots and their worthless god.”

He reached for the reigns of his horse, but the animal shook its head at him; its mane whipped back and forth. The muscles in it hind quarters bulged, and the horse rose up, towering over Horatius, its front legs pawing at the air. Atticus reached out, trying to snatch the reigns, but creature shrieked and lurched forward. Atticus heard Horatius scream and then a dull crack as the animal bore its weight down. It rose up and came down again, and then a third time, before it stomped away.


Atticus jumped down to help, but knew as soon as he did there was nothing else to do. The soldier lay in a pile of torn flesh and blood. How would he report this to his superiors? Even worse, what would he say to the man’s wife or his children?

As he knelt there, a shadow covered the ground and Atticus glanced up. A man with wiry legs and sores on his arms stood beside him. Water dripped from the man’s hair, his beard, and his ragged clothes were completely soaked. He shook his head, his eyes filled with sadness.

Then, he walked away.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

#FridayFlash - Heroes Wanted (Conclusion)

Seeing the woman slowly step out, one hand waving a rag of some sort, Hayworth felt a satisfied smile at the side of his face. After he pulled the trigger, he started to stand up, but then Everett held his hand out, told him to stay down. Like he was just a stupid trail dog who could be commanded around. The bastard. Really, what was Everett worried about? Hayworth was certain he’d hit the sheriff and said as much--saw the man through the scope, just inside the window with one hand extended, and he knew deep in his gut that was the shot. He took it. Ten minutes later, though, the whole time listening to Everett call out the sheriff’s name, saying it was time to come on out , settle this, Hayworth didn’t see anyone moving around down there and started to doubt. Maybe he’d misjudged the wind or didn’t factor in for the slope. But now, seeing the woman step through door alone, her voice carrying up from the house, saying please, dear God, please don’t shoot, he nodded his head and felt that smile.

Through the scope, he couldn’t see her tears, but he knew they were there. He remembered Francine back in Sundance, how she’d cried. Yes sir, he thought, a woman doesn’t carry a face like that unless she’s bawled a few.

He stood, slid his rifle back into the scabbard next to his saddled, and then winked at Everett. “See?”

Everett didn’t say a word.

Hayworth grabbed at his pommel and slid a boot into the stirrup when a funny thing happened. He saw nothing but sky at first, and then felt the wind gush out of him as he hit the ground. He started to feel embarrassed about the whole thing--damn, if he hadn’t done anything so stupid in his life before--but then he heard the report of a rifle. He wanted to ask where the shot came from, but found that when he opened his mouth the only thing that came out was blood.

Everett glanced down, and in those eyes Hayworth saw a mixture of pain and disgust that he had never wanted to see from his friend. Everett looked up again. He nodded and drew his pistol. He said, “Okay, John, let’s do it your way,” and spurred his horse.

As he rode away, speeding down the hill, Hayworth glanced toward the house and saw the strangest sight: the woman had been replaced by the man. The man raised his pistol and fired, the sound of it reaching Hayworth’s ears as Everett fell off his horse.

He thought, Now how did that happen? And then, he didn’t think of anything at all.


John stood over Everett, his old friend clutching at his chest, the shirt turning red with blood.

Everett gasped. “How’d we miss you?”

John reached for the side of his arm. The lingering pain throbbed. The bullet had gone through, he knew, but it was going to take someone else looking at it, and soon.

“You didn’t," he said. "You just didn’t do it well enough.”

Everett chuckled, the sound coming out wet and bubbly. “Ah well… you always were… the better shot.”

John looked over the scene. Everett’s gun was several feet away, and there was no other threat. He holstered his own pistol.

“Why?” he said.

“Because… some things just need… to be settled.”

“One way or the other, huh?”

“Yeah.” Everett started to laugh, but then coughed and gritted his teeth.

A shadow crept over Everett, and John turned as Lois stopped and looked down.

Everett smiled. “Hey… Lois.”

She didn’t say anything.

“I just want you to know... I… I…" Everett's smile faded. His mouth turned slack, and his eyes stared straight ahead, not looking at John but through him.

John heard Lois’s voice, then, and turned toward her. “What?”

“I just wondered what he meant.”

“About what?”

“He said there was something he wanted to tell me.”

John shook his head. “With men like Everett? It’s better that we never know.”

A moment of silence fell between them, broken up by the stirring of the wind. Finally, Lois said, “I’m not sure what to say to my husband.”

John looked down and frowned. “About?”

“About this. About his gun.”

John nodded. If it hadn’t been for her husband’s rifle--a Sharps, thank God--they both might have been finished. After they had killed him, they would have turned on her. To her credit, Lois had been quick to point out the gun, and then brave enough to step outside, waving the rag.

He said, “Tell him the truth,” and wished he would have done the same thing fifteen years ago. If he had, maybe all of this would have been different. Maybe Roberto Mendoza would still be alive. Maybe several others, too. He kneeled down and closed his old friend’s eyes. He thought of the years that had been lost, the pain that had been inflicted. There were a lot of maybes, it seemed.

“There is one thing I need to say first, though.”

As he stood, Lois shook her head. “You’ve already told me everything.”

He looked down. “Can you ever--”

Her fingers touched his lips. She blinked away the tears and nodded. Then, she did something he would hold in his heart forever: she wrapped her arms around him. The pain bit into the wound again, but this time it wasn't so bad.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Great Honor

The other day, author and #FridayFlash fiction writer, Steve Green, sent a note that he had bestowed upon me the Creative Genius Blog Award. Creative I can agree with, but Genius? Some days I find myself on the opposite end of the spectrum. Still, I am both grateful and pleased that Steve thought of me. Steve has given me some great feedback here on Powder Burns (I refuse to call it PB&B since that sounds too much like the foundation of my child's food pyramid) and I enjoy visiting his blog every week to read the new and wonderful creations of his mind. Many of you already have bookmarked his blog as one of your personal favorites. If you haven't, I suggest you do.

Now, in order to pass it forward, I would like to give the award to the following great writers:

John Wiswell - Writing a weekly installment for #FridayFlash can be a challenge, but John does it on a daily basis. That takes a lot of creativity and far, far more than a smidgen of genius.

Kari Fay - Like John Wiswell, Kari writes daily stories posted to her blog. I wish I had the stamina.

Jon Strother - It goes without saying that Jon deserves this award for having the genius insight into creating #FridayFlash. Way to go, Brother Jon.

All of you are awesome

Until next time...

Friday, January 14, 2011

#FridayFlash - Heroes Wanted (Part 9)

Telling the story, John held Lois’s eyes for only a moment when he first started in, but then found he couldn’t do that anymore--not and continue, that is--and decided it was better to stare at the floor, keep things moving. It was time to let this all out.

He remembered the beat of his heart that night, so strong he could feel it in his chest, his head, and how it quickened as he pulled the rifle up to his shoulder and rested his cheek against the stock. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, a breath that every once and a while since returned him to the memory when he found himself taking another just like it. It was funny how even the little things could remind him of where he had been.

Everett had said, “C’mon, John, what’s the matter?” and John took another breath, the sound of Everett’s voice fading with the exhaled air, the only things in his conscious being the beat of his heart and the thing caught in Everett’s trap still wiggling around, trying to break free. This is it, he thought, and squeezed the trigger like his daddy had shown him; which was an irony when he thought about it years later, his father the perfect man of the cloth, so peaceful and contrite in the eyes of God but still handy with a rifle. In fact, it seemed the man was all too willing to go on a hunt. How his father enjoyed the acrid smell of gun powder and the stench of blood, like rusted iron, was a thought John would carry with him long after his father passed on.

The rifle kicked his shoulder, and his horse stirred at the crack of the shot. The thing in the trap jumped off the ground and fell back, wriggling once more before it stopped moving.

They sat a moment longer, until Everett broke the silence. “Damn,” he said, and there was no mistaking the awe in his voice. “I wasn’t sure you could do it from here.”

John felt a swell of pride. A grin pulled at the sides of his face. But all of that quickly faded as soon as Everett led them over to the trap--just some canvas bags sewn together it appeared upon closer inspection--and cut everything open to reveal what lay inside.

He remembered Lois’s father as a gentle man, full of grace, but with fierceness in his soul when provoked. What he saw now, though, was rendered more ghastly than he would have expected under the pale wash of the moonlight.

“What’ve you done?” John said, and his voice sounded weird, almost hollow and distant, like he was a stranger listening in on someone else’s conversation.

Everett stood. “What’ve I done? You were the one who shot--”

The body jerked, and Everett jumped back. He drew his pistol and fired three rounds, the body convulsing with each shot. John stared, not believing what he just saw, as Lois’ father twitched one more time and then din't move again.

“Well,” Everett said, “I guess we both done shot him now.” He twirled the gun on his finger and chuckled.

“I need to get some help,” John said.

“Help?” Everett pushed the front of his hat up. “He’s dead, you idiot. Ain’t nobody can help him now.”

John felt the anger burn at his face. “You son of--”

Everett raised the pistol. “Be careful what you say next, John.”

John shook his head. “You set me up.” And thinking about it now, it was the only way it could have happened. “I’m going to turn you in.”

Everett laughed. “You ain’t telling a soul. I mean, think about it. What’re the town folk gonna say? They know her daddy didn’t like me and also that you’re my best friend. We’ll both hang, brother John. And what’s your daddy gonna say then? He gonna preach up a sermon, maybe use you and me as two of his three points? And what’s more, when you feel the rope cinch around your neck and you step into the hereafter, what’s God gonna think about you? He gonna forgive and forget that you just shot a man?”

John didn’t say anything, haunted by the thought of his father and Lois, side-by-side, standing among a crowd of onlookers as the hangman placed a canvas bag over his head.

Back in the little one-room house, the sound of Everett’s voice fading--What’s God gonna think about you?--John finally glanced up, waiting.

Lois gripped the side of the table and slowly stood. Her eyes watered.

“I rode away,” he said. “I didn’t know what else to do, what else to say. Everett was right. We’d both hang.” He looked down. “Everett stayed behind, though. He made it look like your father had been robbed and then shot by a couple of thieves. You know the rest, how the Sheriff and his posse rode out after men they would never find.”

He looked into her eyes and watched the pain well up like it did when the Sheriff returned the next day and gave the news. One hand covered her mouth, and Lois shook her head.

He said, “Lois, I’m so sorry,” and reached for her as she stepped away.

He wanted to kneel before her, beg her forgiveness; because maybe if she forgave him, then God would too. But he never made it that far. As he stood, the chair legs scraping across the wooden floor, the window shattered, and a pain stabbed at him like he had never felt before.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

#Friday Flash - Heroes Wanted (Part 8)

It was a one room house after all. To the immediate right, John saw a small table and two chairs, and separating the table from where Lois now stood, her hands inside a basin filled with water, he saw a stone hearth and a lit fire, the flames licking at the bottom of a coffee pot placed on the grill. To his left, he saw a rocker, some yarn, and a couple of knitting needles. He looked at the shawl around her shoulders and wondered if she’d made it. At the back of the house, in the far corner, there was a small mattress, and John found that he couldn’t pull his gaze away from it--from the two pillows at the head of the bed.

“Well,” Lois said, and John turned toward her. She wiped both hands on a rag and one eyebrow lifted as she stared back at him. “You going to sit down or stand there all day?”

At the tone of her voice, John felt a prickle of heat along the side of his neck.

She held an open hand toward the table. “Please.”

He nodded and then pulled out a chair. As he sat down, he looked through the window and saw the hill where he’d been just a short while ago and wondered if she’d seen him up there, seated on his horse for what must have been at least twenty minutes, if not more, trying to decide what he should do. He blinked the thought away and asked, “So, where’s your church?”

She sat down, only a few feet away now. The soft aroma of something like lilies touched his nose.

She looked at him with confused eyes. “Our church?”

“I’d heard you were married to a minister,” he said. “When I arrived, I found your house, a barn, but no church.”

She leaned forward and placed both elbows on the table.

“We haven’t actually built one yet. Henry came out to start up a church, seeing as how the town didn’t have one yet.” John noted that she used a name instead of referring to him as only her husband. “For now, we meet here in the house. I cook a pot of coffee, some biscuits, and he cooks up a sermon.”

She laughed at that, and John found himself smiling. He remembered that laugh, the way it always made him feel at ease, like he’d come to a place he had never been before and instantly found it to be like home.

Lois continued. “He says that in a year, two at the most, we’ll build one.” She pointed. “Right out there.”

He gazed through the window.

“In some ways, he’s like you,” she said. “Always the listener, always with a smile on his face. He likes to hunt, too--deer and buffalo.” She paused. “You still hunt?”

John shook his head. “Not as much as I used to.”

“Huh. You used to hunt all the time.”

He nodded, but then furrowed his brow as he remembered something Everett had mentioned. He said, “Wait, Henry?” and when Lois cocked her head to the side, he added, “I’d heard your husband’s name was John.”

“His name is John Henry, his parents adding the Henry to avoid confusion since his father had the same first name. Now, he prefers to go by Henry. Says the double name sounds like something you’d call a child and he doesn’t want the church people thinking of him that way.”

“Well, I’m happy you found a Godly man." He forced a smile. "In a way, I was glad to hear about it.”

She leaned back, cross her arms, and said, “It appears you been listening to some people, too. At least about me.”

He shrugged. “That’s all I heard, really. Everett Wilcox told me.”

Lois glanced at the floor. “Everett. The last I saw of him, he said you two weren’t exactly on speaking terms.”

He wondered what else Everett had said, but decided not to ask. “We’re not. But he and I had a run-in of sorts, and it seems he couldn’t stop talking.”

She frowned, and he could see she was trying to make some sense of that.

“So, how is Everett?”

“He’s in jail. And soon enough, probably by next Tuesday, he’ll be swinging from the gallows.”

A look of shock crossed her face, and John realized the words came out differently than he had intended.

“What’d he do?” she asked.

A sick feeling rushed into his stomach at the sound in her voice. What is this? he wondered. After all the years and all that had happened, why did she care?

John said, “He killed a man.” He shifted in his chair and stared out the window. “In truth, he’s killed several, but this is the only one I can actually do something about.”

“And why couldn’t you do anything about the others?”

“Most of them, I didn’t have any proof.” He sighed. “Another one…”

He stopped and saw Lois staring at him. Silent. Waiting.

He gave her a frustrated glance. “Look, I’ve got something I need to say.” He rubbed at his brow. “It’s something I can’t get away from, no matter how hard I try, so please--please listen and don’t say anything until I’m through.”

Lois reached over and touched his arm.

“Several years ago,” he said, “right before I disappeared and left you wondering what happened, I went out one night with Everett. To kill a coyote.”


They had ridden for several miles, the occasional rush of air and the steady clop of horse hooves being the only sound between them. Finally, Hayworth said, “How sure are you that he’ll be there?”

“I know John,” Everett said. "He's there."

Hayworth shook his head. “It’s a long way out here, if he’s not.”

Everett looked straight ahead. “A few more miles, and we’ll know soon enough, now won’t we?”