Nick Crook vs. Brandon Barrows

My Every Waking Day

48

votes

I wake to an unfamiliar ceiling covered with water spots and patches of mold.  Wrinkling my nose in disgust, I roll off the stained mattress and directly onto the floor.  It is cold--shards of glass had fallen from the cracked window.  The light from the window is dim at best.  Beyond, a dismal snow accumulates on the sill, falling from formless grey clouds.  Glancing through the window reveals only a deserted, snow-covered parking lot and a neglected motel sign.

I stand too quickly and feel pain jolt up my spine.  There is a door in one wall.  I slide it open, revealing darkness beyond and slamming my nostrils with an ancient odor of decay.  I move a hand to one side of the door, find a light switch, and flip it.

Nothing happens.

Still darkness.  No power.  I flip the switch a few more times.  Behind me on the floor next to the mattress are a few small items.  Battered wallet.  Several open bottles of liquor.  Crushed, nearly-empty pack of cigarettes.  A lighter.  A prescription bottle.  A foam container of what looks like potato wedges.  I pick up the lighter and after a few attempts, strike a flame.

I step into the room.  The lighter’s meager flame does little to encroach the darkness, but still illuminates a mildew-coated shower stall and a disgusting toilet.  Roaches chitter from the light and vanish back into the shadows, but my focus is on the man in the mirror.  Sunken eyes, skin drawn taut, wispy grey hair, stained white tank top barely covering a belly, and a pair of pants held up with a length of rope tied with a knot in the front.  Something on my hand catches my eye and I move the lighter closer to the mirror.  My eyes widen.  There’s far too much blood caked to my knuckles, and I know it isn’t mine.

My name is Patrick Kane, I’m fifty-three years old, and I’ve only lived seven days of my life.  Today is the eighth.  I have no idea how I got here.  I’ve been locked away from the world for years, but if I’m here, something horrible has happened, and there’s work to be done.  I’m afraid and don’t know why.

#

The earliest I remember was the day after my little sister’s birthday party.  I was seven and she had turned five.  In my confusion I could only recall waking in a strange place in a strange bed with people whose names I already knew calling me son and brother.  I couldn’t understand why my parents were angry and why my sister was crying--until I saw the doll.  The princess doll every little girl wanted, with the dark flowing hair and overly large eyes, from a movie we had seen weeks beforehand at the theater.

It was my fault the doll’s head had been ripped out of its articulated socket.  I didn’t know what had driven me to perform the act, only that I had done so.  So, it was up to me to set things right.  I took the pieces to my room.  On a desk were plastic frames and parts from punch-out model kits, decals, pages of unfolded instructions, and a partially-assembled scale airplane, all meticulously laid out.  With a sweep of my arm, I shoved them all together into a pile, clearing the desk.

I could do this.

The doll was nothing more than another model.  Working in silence, I sanded, applied glue, and slid the damaged pieces back together.  Some touch-up paint restored the princess to her royal majesty, though she wouldn’t be able to turn her head.

I found my sister downstairs.  “Here,” I said, handing her the doll.  She took it with trembling hands.  I glanced at my parents.  My lips quivered.  “I’m really sorry.”

I fell asleep that night hoping amends had been made.

#

When I woke again, I was twelve.  Same room, different bed.  Model airplanes dangled by fishing lines attached to the ceiling.  I stumbled out of bed.  Downstairs, I could hear my mom talking with another woman whose voice I didn’t recognize.  Then, I heard my name being called.

Sitting in the living room were my mom and a neighbor from a few houses over.  Mrs. Phillips.  Of course.  I knew that.  I looked at my mom and tried not to act surprised at how much older she looked.  She glowered and held up a baseball with my name written on it.

“Patrick, Mrs. Phillips said this broke her window,” my mom said.  I glanced at Mrs. Phillips.  She looked back at me with the disdain only an elderly cranky neighbor could muster.  Mom’s disapproval was subtle, at least until she asked, “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“Sorry,” I said, swallowing a lump in my throat and feeling my face pale.  “I’ll be more careful.”

Mrs. Phillips looked at me with beady eyes.  I felt like a rat being stared down by a snake.  A big snake.  “Your apology won’t repair my window,” she said with a thin pursed smile I could see no joy in.  

“I said I was sorry,” I repeated, shifting on my feet.  A thin bead of sweat trickled down my face.  “I... I’ll...”

“You’ll what, young man?”  Mrs. Phillips asked, her voice curt.

I ran back upstairs instead of responding, taking the steps two at a time.  I knew what I was looking for and what I should do, but didn’t want to go through with it.  I paced the small room several times, working up my nerve.

Top drawer, box all the way in the back.  Model of a jet fighter plane stamped on the front.  I pulled it out and tore open the side, then dumped its contents onto my bed.  I quickly counted out four twenties, two tens, and a fistful of ones, representing all the yards mowed and gutters cleaned over the summer.  I gathered the bills together and clutched them in both hands, then returned to the living room.

“Can I pay for the new one?” I said, not looking up at Mrs. Phillips, just staring down at the floor.  I held out the wad of cash.  I could feel her eyes on me, then her bony fingers in my hands.

“I suppose,” she said dryly, taking the money, “this will do.”  She tucked the bills into her purse, then my mom saw her out.

I wondered if I would wake the morning after or not, or if I would notice the missing money or know how it came to be gone.  I pushed the thoughts aside and turned the day around for the better.  Watched a movie on TV.  Rode my bike through the neighborhood.  Had extra ice cream after dinner.  That night, I chose a thin book I was certain I could finish and stayed up late reading it.

The door cracked open a bit and my mom leaned inside.  “I know it wasn’t easy to do what you did this morning,” she said, “but I’m proud of you for doing the right thing.”  The door slid shut.

Somehow, that validation made falling asleep easy.  I had done what I needed to do.

#

It would be six more years until I woke again, several days past my eighteenth birthday.  Same room, different bed.  The model airplanes suspended from the ceiling were gone.  Instead, the walls were decorated with pictures and posters of planes.  My interests hadn’t changed.

Hanging on a hook on the door was a varsity jacket with my last name stitched across the back, proudly proclaiming me a student at Eastland High.  I glanced at the patches on the front--I was on both the track team and the chess team.

I heard a buzzing sound coming from one of the pockets.  Reaching into it, I found a flip phone.  The tiny LCD screen on the front informed me I had missed a few dozen text messages.  I flipped the phone open and nervously scanned through them.  They were all from my girlfriend Carmen--although reading over them I realized she was my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend if I did not act quickly.

I went downstairs.  Same house.  My father sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, buried behind the newspaper.  He folded it down and looked at me.  “You’re up early,” he said, before turning back to the paper.  I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down across the table from him.

“Dad?”  The coffee tasted bitter, but some sugar helped.  My father lowered the newspaper again and stared at me.  I tried to ignore his greying hairs and the wrinkles which hadn’t been there before.  “I... need your help.”

He folded the paper and laid it down, then interlaced his fingers. “What’s on your mind?” he asked, smiling faintly.

“When mom got mad at you,” I said, drumming my fingers on the table, “how did you get her to forgive you?”

“Problems with women?” he asked.  I nodded.  His smile vanished as he stood.  “Come on, let’s talk outside.”  We walked onto the back deck.  It was cold and I regretted leaving the varsity jacket upstairs, but the hot coffee helped.

I told him about the text messages and he asked what I was thinking at the restaurant.  I listened to my father talk.  I could only shrug and shake my head.

“Patrick, do you love this girl?”  He looked me in the eye.  “Because she loves you.  When you’ve brought her over for dinner before, I saw her looking at you the same way your mom still looks at me.”

I started to speak but he cut me off with a raised hand.

“It’s not me you need to tell,” he said.  “If you love her, call her.  Meet with her.  Tell her you’re sorry.  Don’t complain, don’t make excuses, don’t try to wave it away like it never happened.  Tell her you love her, you’re sorry, and you’ll be better for her because she’s worth it.”  His breath fogged up in the morning air.  “But if you don’t, you still owe her an apology.  And you need to break up with her sooner rather than later, because you’re not being fair to her, stringing her along like she’s the only one for you.”

I lowered my head thoughtfully.

“Son,” he said, his voice earnest, “the most important thing is to be honest with her.”

“Thanks,” I said, stepping back inside.  I returned to my room and closed the door behind me.  Sitting at the desk, I read the string of text messages over and over, thinking, and mulling over what my father had told me.  Whether I truly loved Carmen.  I realized the previous days I had woken were when I needed to set something right.  So it could only stand to reason I loved her.

My fingers trembled as I made the call.  We talked for hours.  Eventually, I drove over and picked her up and we talked more.  Face to face.  I cried.  Late that night, I dropped her off.  She kissed me and it felt amazing.  I got lost in the moment before finding myself in a late-night diner.  Enough caffeine and sugar kept me going.  I was Patrick Kane, but the part of him whose sole purpose it was to set things right.  My work was done, however, and it felt so good to experience the world.  A midnight superhero movie, a late-night game of mini-golf, and finally a drive to the beach.  I sat in the car with the heater running and watched the sun rise over the crashing surf, then finally returned home and resigned myself to sleep.

#

My eyes snapped open.  Different bed, different room.  The dormitory walls were unadorned and formed of painted cinder blocks.  Light streamed in through the window.  The only pieces of furniture were the bed and desk--the latter covered with schematics and diagrams of cross-sections and blueprints of airplanes.  I pulled myself out of bed and staggered to the window, looking out from the high rise across the campus below.

I had fallen asleep in my clothes.  I stripped off the rumpled garments and left them loosely piled on the floor.  Behind all the screen-printed t-shirts with aviator logos on them, pushed to the back of the closet, hung a single button-up shirt.  I slipped into it, buttoned through it, then realized I had done it lopsided on one side.  Sighing, I pulled it off over my head and grabbed one of the t-shirts.

My task was going to be difficult.  No text messages, no emails, no context.  No indication of any reason why I had woken.  I made phone calls.  Carmen.  My parents.  A professor.  Some friends.  An advisor.  A few other contacts that seemed important.  All in which I asked, hedging around, if I had done anything the day before I might have regretted.  My questions were answered with mere rote confusion and bewilderment.

At least mom was happy to hear from me--it was the first time I had called her in months.  The conversation was lengthy and while it felt good to catch up, I didn’t truly believe that was the reason I was there.

I decided I had done what I could and would make the best of my day.  There were probably classes or seminars I should have been attending but given how precious little time I had until sleep claimed me once more, I instead enjoyed the day to its fullest.

I rented the sequel to the superhero movie I had seen on my previous day awake.

I walked the paths at a local park, feeling the sun on my face and listening to children play.

I drove an hour to surprise Carmen with flowers and dinner.  Her face lighting up made me smile.

I stayed up far later than I should have, arriving back to my dormitory when the twilight of sunrise was beginning to peak.  Grabbing a scrap of paper, I jotted down “I don’t know what the problem was,” and left it on the desk before collapsing and letting darkness take me.

#

Different mattress, different room.  The bed was clearly large enough for two people, but I was the only person in it.  I rolled over and felt something slide off me with a disgruntled “meow”.  The tabby cat looked at me disdainfully, then bounced off the mattress.  Getting out of bed, I walked blearily to the chest of drawers and picked up the framed picture on it.  Myself, Carmen, and Leslie--our daughter.  She looked about seven years old.

I hoped this was a simple fix--flowers for Carmen or a trip to the park and ice cream for Leslie.  I put the picture back down and meandered into the hallway.  The house was large.  Leslie’s room was obvious--it was pink and adorned with posters of horses and unicorns.  Seeing them brought a smile to my face.  I wandered downstairs and did a double-take when I walked past one room with a faux cockpit installed in it.

My nerves tingled.  I glanced out the back door.  The yard was empty but blanketed in toys.  Opening the door into the garage I saw space for two vehicles, but only one was parked.

“It’s okay,” I told myself, checking the time.  “They’ve probably gone out early for... something.”

My perspective shifted as I turned back into the house.  I felt the moisture in my mouth dry up.  The coffee table and sofa were pushed out of place and a slew of movie cases were haphazardly strewn across the floor.

Then I saw the hole in the drywall.  My nervousness intensified as I walked over to it.  Curling my fingers into a fist, I pushed it into the hole.  My blood ran cold when my hand fit perfectly.  I was dumbfounded.  I hurried around the house, checking every flat surface for a note, a letter, something, anything.

My phone was still next to my bed.  The touchscreen easily detected my thumbprint.  No text messages, no emails, no missed calls, nothing.  I sat on the corner of the bed.  The cat jumped on me and curled up in my lap.  I scratched her behind the ears and she purred.

The call to Carmen went straight to voicemail.  I tried again several more times.  Scrolling through the contacts, my thumb hesitated for several seconds over the Call button before I finally phoned Bethany--my mother-in-law.

After a few rings, she answered with a sharp “Hello?”

“It’s Patrick.”

“I’m not letting you talk to either of them,” Bethany answered, her voice crisp.  “And if you so much as drive by I’m calling the police.”

“I understand you’re upset,” I answered, rubbing my temple with my free hand.  The cat yawned, then went to sleep.  “I wasn’t myself.  I need to find a way to make this right.”

“Patrick.”  The one word my mother-in-law said hung in the air.  My hands went clammy and I could feel individual beads of sweat on my forehead.  In the pit of my stomach dread formed.  “Why does Carmen have a black eye?”  With that one question the string of flimsy confidence I had that this situation could be dealt with snapped.  My breath seized in my chest.  I glanced at my free hand, vaguely wondering if it had been that one or the one I held the phone in.  “Are you there, Patrick?”

“Yes,” I said automatically.  “I’m here.”

“Don’t try to contact her,” Bethany said.  “You’ve done enough damage.”

“I need a lawyer,” I said, more so to myself.  “At least make this go...” I paused, grasping for the right word.  It had gone past the point of amicable and non-confrontational.  “Smoothly,” I finally finished with.

“Good luck with that,” Bethany finished.  Her voice softened.  “You’re going to need it.”

The conversation ended there.  I found myself staring at the phone’s screen as it beeped.  I loved my wife and daughter, but I also needed to protect them from myself.  I took several minutes to collect my thoughts, then called an attorney and a realtor.  The conversations were concise and I stuck with what I knew.

I paced the house until I realized this was more than what I could handle on my own.  I needed to accept that I may never see my family again.  I called a therapist.  I kept it simple--my wife had left me and taken my daughter because I couldn’t control my anger.  I wrote down the phone numbers for the attorney, realtor, and therapist, and what days and times the appointments were.  That task complete, I kept the rest of the day to myself.

Amongst the movies I found the third and final entry in the superhero films.  I watched it while enjoying a cup of coffee, then took a drive.  Watched planes take off and land at the airport.  Drove to the local amusement park and went on the roller coasters.  Called my mom and told her I loved her.

It was a nice house.  I would have liked to have stayed awake longer, but the cat jumped on the bed and curled up on my chest.  Her fur was soft and she trilled as I petted her.  She was warm, and her soft breathing lulled me off to sleep.  It felt good.

#

Yet another unfamiliar ceiling.  Different bed.  Same cat.  She was curled up next to me, oblivious to the droning phone alarm.  I turned it off.  Quarter after seven.  The cat looked at me and meowed.  Her whiskers and face were gray, and when she cried I could hear the age in her voice, but she still had the same purr when I scratched her behind the ears.  I stayed like that for a few minutes until she got bored and hopped to the floor.

I pulled myself out of bed and pushed aside the curtains on the window where it looked down onto a parking lot.  A nearby sign declared the name of the development as “Willow Tree Apartments”.  I turned back into mine.  It was small.  A single bedroom and bathroom, a kitchen, and a combined dining room and living room area.  At least the coffee pot was easy to find.  I poured a mug and sat at the table, rummaging through the stack of mail.  Mostly bills.  A manila folder caught my eye.

I flipped it open.  The form on top was filled in with a cursive handwriting I didn’t recognize, but the “Notice of Dismissal” was evidently clear.  The form was dated the day before marking my last day as an engineer at Wingspan Avionics.  The attached police report answered the question why.  Assault charges levied by one Albert Denton, who I had struck in a fit of rage.

I let my breath out slowly, my fingers trembling as I scrolled through the contacts on my phone.  My thumb hovered over the Call button for Albert Denton for half a minute before I moved it away.  I had learned enough from courtroom dramas to know contacting him wouldn’t be in my best interest.

I called my attorney and explained what had happened.  I gave her the information on the police report, said I just wanted to make things right.  Medical bills, counseling, lost wages, any form of restitution.  I tried not to cry.  She said she’d handle it and the inevitable plea bargain.  I was looking at probation, community service, and the possibility of getting the incident expunged.  I asked if there was anything I could do.  Anything I should do.  She gave me some phone numbers for anger management counseling.  I thanked her profusely and hung up.

The cat meowed and rubbed against my leg.  I reached down and stroked her back and she trilled.  I wrote down the number for the attorney and made a few more phone calls.  This wasn’t something I could set right, at least not on my own.  The attorney would help.  The counseling would help.  But I had done what I could.

I stepped outside into the autumn air, drawing a deep breath.   The wind was cold, but the sun was warm.  I moved wherever my legs traveled.  Carmen and Leslie were hundreds of miles away, part of another day and another life.  I carried my daughter’s picture in my wallet, but I wondered if it was to remind me of what I loved or what I lost.  Or both.

A small corner bookstore caught my eye.  I stepped inside and purchased a novel from a cheerful woman seated behind a table.  She scrawled her name on the title page and handed it to me with a smile.  I thanked her and left, then walked along the city streets.  Old men in parks played chess at stone tables.  I lost a few games and a few dollars, but the prospect of the game gave me a long-lost sense of excitement.

I called my sister.  She was surprised to hear from me.  I had withdrawn when my divorce was finalized and stopped speaking to the family entirely after my father’s funeral.  I apologized to her for not being a better brother.  She laughed and said for all my faults she still loved me.  That made me smile.  If I had known it would be the last time I ever spoke with her, I would have stayed on the line longer.

Dinner that evening was in an upscale restaurant atop a skyscraper.  The meal and view were both excellent and I watched the sun set over a crème brûlée.  That night, I curled up in bed reading the book I had purchased.  The cat laid down next to me and closed her eyes.  Finishing the book, I turned the light out and hugged her close to me.  I don’t know how long I stayed in the dark before drifting off.

#

The next time I woke there was a ceiling, but no bed, no cat.  Not a building.  I was in an airplane and could feel the familiar hum of turbines.  Window seat.  I slid the shutter up and looked through the portal, seeing nothing but darkness beyond, then pulled the blanket off me.  Perplexed, I adjusted my position and pulled my wallet and boarding pass out of my pocket.  I also found a passport and travel visa.

I swallowed a lump in my throat when I realized I was on an intercontinental flight.  I had been on the plane seven hours and still had another ten before landing.  This wasn’t fair.  No possible way I could find out what the problem was.  What I had done.  To spur me to flee the country.  To possibly do anything to make it right.  Trapped in an aluminum cylinder at thirty-thousand feet I couldn’t make the most of what little time I had.

Frowning, I opened my wallet.  Inside, aside from the assorted bills, was a short note: “Don’t fight this”.  I recognized my own handwriting.  I had left in a blind panic, but still had time to scrawl those three simple words.  I stowed my wallet and unbuckled the seat belt.

The lights in the cabin had been dimmed but I found my way to the bathroom.  I splashed some cold water on my face.  The man in the mirror looking back at me was nervous and haggard.  His was the face of a man running away.  The face of a man who had surrendered to despair.  I wished I knew why, and hoped it was simply because it was something beyond my ability to repair.  Of course, there were always consequences.  Heartbreak.  Divorce.  Unemployment.  Letting people down.  Letting myself down.

I returned to my seat, retrieved my carry-on bag, and rummaged through it.  At least I had packed a few books to read and read them I would.  I aimed the overhead light and air nozzle directly at my face, hoping they’d keep me awake through the hypnotic lull of the airplane engines, the low ambient light, and the dry recirculating air of the cabin.  Staying awake was a challenge.  I paged for a cup of coffee and several cans of soda a grumpy flight attendant delivered a few minutes later.  The sugar and caffeine would only delay the inevitable.

Raindrops splattered against the window and lightning flashed in the distance.  I barely heard the pilot’s announcement about the delay.  Weeping, I drifted off, missing my opportunity to set things right.  Unable to fulfill my purpose.  Unable to fulfill my day.  Trapped in this tin can, soon to be a stranger in a strange land.  I missed the fresh air.  I missed my cat.

#

Now, here I stand, in this abandoned motel, looking at a broken man in a broken mirror.  I look at my hands again and curl them into fists.  Far too much dried blood on the knuckles.  I feel myself trembling.  Here I stand in this desolate place of despair and broken promises, without even the remnants of a dream to bury.

The lighter falters, then the small flame sputters out.  I step back into the room and glance through the window again, seeing snow piling up on the motel sign.  I cannot read the words but recognize the language as Russian.  I can’t see any other buildings--this motel seems to be the only place for miles.

I turn around.  The door to the outside looms.  I push it open with one bloodstained hand.  Despite the snow accumulating on the walkway and my bare feet, I still step outside.  There’s a dark shape next to the staircase.  A body, laying facedown.  My pulse quickens.  I break out in a cold sweat despite the freezing temperature.  I walk over and, leaning down, turn the man onto his back.

He’s dead.  Whatever his last fatal mistake was, the repercussions were written in the blood and bruises across his face.  This was a man to whom I owe a debt I can never repay.  My hand is numb but I still feel his face as I close his eyes.  Standing, I lurch back into the motel room, pushing the door shut.

My task is doomed to fail.  Much like the other times, I could have done something, anything, to enjoy what little waking hours I had.  But this was too much.  I pick up the prescription bottle, feeling another complaint from my back as I bend down to do so.  The label is faded.  I don’t pay attention to who it’s made out to, only what kind of pills they are.  Insomnia treatment.  I twist the cap off and count eight capsules within.

I laugh dryly and swallow them all, washing them down with tepid liquor from one of the open bottles.  To everyone I’ve left behind, to all the hearts I’ve broken, I’m sorry.  I did the best I could, but it wasn’t good enough.  But I can stop myself from ever hurting anyone again.  This time when sleep comes, I won’t fight.  I can’t fight it.  I give up.  I feel my breathing slow and my last thoughts are what might have been.


Read More

Lawman

54

votes

Jabin Dunley drained his coffee-cup and moved out onto the porch of the marshal’s office to catch the sunrise. Any other day, he would be heading home for some shut-eye about now. At nineteen years old, he had achieved his life’s dream: he was a lawman. Even if he was only Marshal Ernie Farrar’s night deputy, it still counted, and there was nothing said he had to be just a cow-town night deputy forever. That’s what he told himself these three weeks on the job, anyway. He wished he could believe it today, wished he could believe there was a long career ahead of him. 

Jabin wished the marshal, or even his day deputy, Ben Thomas, was in town. But neither had been in Aldensville for two days, and might not be back for several more. Both the marshal and his deputy were also sheriff’s deputies—giving them authority outside of town limits—and Sheriff Vail called on them for the manhunt for some prisoners escaped from the state prison. That left Jabin Dunley in charge. 

Before leaving, Marshal Farrar offered to temporarily deputize another man to assist Jabin, but Dunley declined. Aldensville was peaceful at the moment and this was a chance to prove himself worthy of the responsibility entrusted to him. The marshal was skeptical, but allowed it, thinking along the same lines. Marshal Farrar, Deputy Thomas, and a sheriff’s deputy from Crystal Forks rode out to join the sheriff’s posse, leaving Aldensville in the young man’s hands. 

That same afternoon, Jabin Dunley killed a man.

*

Dunley sat on the wooden loveseat that Marshal Farrar and his wife, Annie, favored on pleasant evenings. The morning cart came rattling along, sprinkling water to keep the dust down. Otherwise, Aldensville was quiet, still sleeping beneath a blanket of half-shadow and first light. 

Jabin took the makings from his shirt pocket and began to roll a smoke, but his jittery hands threatened to spill the loose tobacco. He wanted a cigarette desperately, but he had no dexterity the last couple days. He didn’t have to wonder why. Not wanting to waste tobacco, he stuffed the works back into his pocket, crumpled the sheet of rolling-paper and tossed it into the street. 

The sound of a slamming door caught Dunley’s ear. A moment later, Sam Turner, the swamper at the Longhorn Saloon, came drag-footing up the street. He arrived in town about the same time Jabin became a deputy. Nobody knew much about the man, except that he was somewhere past fifty and about the sloppiest drunk Aldensville ever saw.

“Howdy, Deputy Dunley,” the older man called.

“Morning, Mr. Turner.”

“Pretty day, huh?” Turner ventured, sidling towards the jail’s porch, hands slipping into his pockets, trying to hide their shaking. Jabin’s eyes flicked to his own hands. He clenched them tightly, feeling a pang of sympathy for the older man.

“I guess.” The deputy looked Turner over. The old man tried to sound cheerful, but his face held the slightly pained expression of a desperate drinker before his first drink of the day. The blue of the man’s eyes was washed out, almost filmy, and beneath tangled white whiskers, his skin was sallow. If you looked hard, though, you could tell that his jaw was still firm and that it was once a face of character.

“Deputy, about t’other day. I wanted to tell you—“

“Skip it, Mr. Turner. Please.” Dunley tried not to show his strain, but his voice cracked on that last word.

Neither of them said anything for a few moments. Somewhere nearby, a rooster greeted the morning with its cockadoodledoooo!

“Say, deputy,” Turner began, his hands sliding from his pockets to grasp the porch railing. “You wouldn’t happen to have a couple bits I might borry, would you? I wouldn’t ask, only—“

“Sure, Mr. Turner.” Glad to hurry Turner on his way, Jabin dug into his hip pocket, drew out a quarter and flipped it towards the old man. Turner caught it, flashing a wide, yellow-toothed grin. He said his thanks and hurried towards the Longhorn, eager for that first drink before starting his day’s work.

Jabin watched him go, then went back into the jail. The clock over the door showed six-thirty.

*

At nine o’clock, Jabin was sifting through a pile of dodgers that came in the mail the day before, just for something to do. He was tired and a nap wouldn’t have hurt, but there was no way he could sleep. He hadn’t truly slept since the morning Marshal Farrar left. He half-wondered if he ever would again.

The clatter of a racing horse sounded in the street. Jabin stood, moved towards a window, and saw the rider had dismounted before the jail and was tying up at the rack. Jabin opened the door as the rider stepped onto the porch, beating dust from his hat, and panting from a hard ride. His eyes fell on Deputy Dunley, glided across the star on his narrow chest. “Marshal here, son?” he asked.

“No. I’m Deputy Dunley. Can I help you, sir?”

The man shook his head and pushed into the office. He flopped into the chair across from the beat-up table that served as the desk. “Hoping to help you, I suppose.”

Jabin moved to the desk, but didn’t sit. He leaned against the wall back of it and crossed his arms over his chest, trying for nonchalance. The rider looked familiar. Then it came to him: Luke Patterson, a rancher from the valley west of town. Jabin never spoke to him before, but a body ran into most everyone in the country sooner or later, at least once in a while.

“Go ahead, Mr. Patterson.”

Patterson laid his hat on the desk and looked at Jabin. “Was on my way to the Tumbling R to talk about saddle-stock with Pete Adams. I stopped at Pender’s, you know the roadhouse, out on Softbone Road?” Jabin nodded. Patterson went on. “I stopped for some breakfast, and the Mulcahey boys were in there, Josh and Ned and Mick – red-eyed and liquored and talkin’ mean about the bastard lawman who killed their brother, Eli.”

Dunley swallowed hard. This was the shoe he expected for two days, just waiting for it to fall on his head.

*

The Mulcaheys were bad men, both in the outlaw sense and that they were bad men to tangle with. All four had been hands for the Squared Oh outfit, men who could punch cows, but lived to punch and shoot at other men. When the Squared Oh busted after its owner’s death, the land was redistributed and most folks found work on other ranches. Some of the hard-cases who couldn’t find honest work left the country, but the Mulcaheys never went far. They let their inner demons out and skirted that shadowy line between the simple rawness of untamed western men and the true desperado. They were rustlers for sure, though no one could prove it, and it was known that both Ned and Mick were hellers with guns. 

For all that, though, most folks tolerated them. That was down to Eli, the baby. He was bad as the rest, but he also had a knack for socializing, an easy grace that put men on his side and charmed ladies. When he had money, he bought drinks. When he was broke, he had stories by the bushel to earn his whiskey, and people fell over themselves to buy the next round. Nobody much liked his brothers, but everyone loved Eli.

The afternoon Marshal Farrar and Deputy Thomas rode out, Jabin Dunley was feeling his oats. The star on his chest never shone more brightly and the Colt on his hip was weightless, the way he felt. He should have been napping, since he had lost half a day’s sleep and wouldn’t be sleeping that night, but he was doing rounds of the town, enjoying being seen on duty.

Around three, he stopped in the Longhorn to reward himself with a beer for his hard work. Usually, the place would be mostly empty on a weekday afternoon. Instead, there was a small crowd, clustered around a man Jabin didn’t recognize. The stranger was telling some rowdy story, a commission girl on his knee and a dozen men hanging on his every word. Dark-haired and dark-complexioned, he smiled freely, laughing at his own story. Even from across the room, the blue of his eyes stood out against sun-darkened features. When Jabin came closer, though, there was something else in those eyes: the redness of drink. This man had been at his leisure for some time. 

“Howdy,” Deputy Dunley said. 

Heads turned. The stranger focused his grin on the boy, took him in, and laughed. 

“Something funny, mister?”

“Not at all, son, not at all.” 

Jabin’s spine stiffened. The other man couldn’t have been more than four or five years older than he was.

“Just thinking,” the stranger continued, “the town must be hard up if they’re recruiting law from the schoolyard.” A smattering of laughter broke out.

Jabin flushed. Minutes ago, he was the cock of the walk. With just a few words, this laughing, wise-eyed loafer cut him down. He grimaced. Somehow, his eyes met those of Sam Turner, the swamper, leaning on a broom nearby. The old man shook his head slightly. Jabin ignored him. 

“All right, mister,” Jabin said, trying to reclaim his dignity. “You had a laugh and it looks like you’ve had more than enough to drink. Maybe it’s time to move along, assuming you got business in town.”

“Oh, yeah?” The blue-eyed man gently pushed the girl from his knee, and stood. “I happen to like where I am.” Standing shifted the fall of his clothing. Now, whiskey fumes wafted from him. He stepped towards Jabin and knocked his knee against the table, but gave no sign he felt it. He was far drunker than the deputy guessed. “Who you think you are telling me otherwise, sonny?”

“Deputy…” said a grub-rider named Baker. “What’s the harm? We’re just havin’ a good time.”

“Yeah! What’s the harm, boy?” The stranger poked a finger into Jabin’s chest.

Anger welled in Dunley. Marshal Farrar left this town in his care. Some drunken drifter wasn’t going to back him down. “What’s your name, mister?”

“Eli Mulcahey,” the other man smirked. 

If face didn’t ring a bell, the name did. Jabin knew of no paper on the Mulcahey brothers, but like everyone else in the country, he knew the Mulcaheys were rustlers and worse. 

“That right?” Jabin asked, heart thumping. “Well, now I got the right to move you along. Right into a cell.”

“What!” Mulcahey scoffed. “For enjoying a drink with my friends?” There was a murmur of agreement.

Sam Turner appeared at Jabin’s elbow. “Better just go with him, Mr. Mulcahey. If’n you ain’t done nothing, it’ll be straightened soon enough.” He looked to Jabin, giving the deputy a chance to settle this peacefully. The boy didn’t take it.

“The hell it will. I can stick ‘im with public drunkenness, if nothing else. C’mon now.” He reached for Mulcahey’s arm, intending to march him from the saloon. 

Mulcahey, only a little larger, but much harder, snarled and shoved Jabin Dunley, making the deputy stumble. “Keep your damned hands off me!”

Turner stepped between the younger men, arms raised. “Fellas—“

“Out the way, you old fool!” Mulcahey snapped, slapping Turner aside one-handed, while his other, his right, seemed to drop towards his hip. 

The old man went backwards and fell. As he hit the floor, the roar of a gun shattered the atmosphere. A red flower blossomed in Eli Mulcahey’s chest, midway between belly and sternum. Surprise crossed his face before he crumpled like a rag-doll.

Jabin Dunley looked at the fallen man, at the gun in his hand, at the faces of the crowd. Eli Mulcahey was going for his gun, Jabin was sure of that. But still, he couldn’t believe it. He killed a man. 

For two days, that thought was foremost in his mind. That, and one other: Eli was the least of the Mulcahey brothers.

*

Luke Patterson said, “Those Mulcaheys were eggin’ each other on over which one could put a bullet through the star on chest of their baby brother’s killer. Suppose that’s you?”

Jabin nodded. 

“Where’s Marshal Farrar?”

“Gone with Sheriff Vail. Ben Thomas, too.”

“Well,” Patterson stood, picked up his hat. “Were I you, deputy, I’d find a place to get gone to as well.”

For a moment, anger outweighed Jabin’s fear. “Marshal Farrar left me in charge of this town. I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

Patterson sighed. “Suit yourself. Just thought I’d let you know they was comin’.”

“Well… thanks, Mr. Patterson. I do appreciate it.”

“Sure.” He turned towards the door.

“When you think they’ll get here?” Jabin asked.

Shaking his head, Patterson said, “Don’t know. From Pender’s, it’s an easy ride of maybe two hours. I made it in a hard hour. Suppose whenever they get their guts up enough, they’ll head straight here.”

The deputy nodded, thanked Patterson again and watched him leave. A crowd was gathered around Patterson’s horse, wanting to know what brought him into town at a dead run. It wouldn’t be long before everyone knew the Mulcaheys were coming for Jabin Dunley.

Eli Mulcahey was well-liked and Jabin shooting him did not sit well with many, even if the man was going for his gun. Rumor had it Jabin was jumpy and simply shot the other man without giving him a chance. The deputy was no longer sure himself. It looked like Mulcahey was going for his gun, but… 

Whether Mulcahey meant to draw or not, general feeling was Jabin provoked him. It was the middle of June, but Aldensville was chilly for the young deputy. He wished again that Ernie Farrar or Ben Thomas were around. He wished at least for a chance to talk to Annie Farrar, the marshal’s serene and pleasant wife. When the marshal hired Jabin, Annie immediately made him feel welcome, both in the position and in her home, on the second floor of the jail. But even Mrs. Farrar was away, visiting relatives to the north. Jabin Dunley was alone in Aldensville.

*

The deputy was half-dozing in a chair by the window when a brisk knock sounded on the door.

Jabin’s eyes snapped open, instantly awake, and he stood to greet Mayor Matt Watkins. 

“Forget pleasantries, Dunley,” Watkins snapped. “It true that the Mulcaheys are headed here, out for your guts?”

Jabin nodded. “Luke Patterson thinks so. He’s got no reason to lie.”

Watkins pounded his fist against the wall. “God damn it. What’ve you gotten us into?” Watkins was below average height, but thick and solidly built. Even draped in a broadcloth suit, he didn’t look like a dandy, but the westerner he was. 

“He was about to draw, Mr. Mayor.” Dunley didn’t want to make Watkins angrier, but he had to defend himself.

Watkins threw up his hands. “It doesn’t matter now. What a time for this to happen.” He paced back and forth, the gold watch chain stretched across his broad chest tinkling musically with each step. “Maybe this is an opportunity, a chance to rid ourselves of those scoundrels.” 

He looked at Jabin as if just now seeing him, his gaze appraising. “You’ll need some men. Find a few who’ll stand you and we’ll deputize them.” His tone softened slightly. “Can you handle this, son?”

Jabin’s mouth went dry and the tremor in his hands was so bad he was certain the mayor would notice. “I’ll sure try, sir.”

Watkins looked disappointed. “It’ll have to do. Get yourself killed and we may all be in for it, though. Remember that, deputy.” He left.

Jabin sighed. Find men to stand him? Three days ago that wouldn’t have been hard. Aldensville was a good town, with mostly good people. Jabin Dunley wasn’t anyone of account, but this was a place of law and there were many who would be glad to help the marshal’s office. That was when Ernie Farrar was here, though. Now, there was only Jabin, and friends seemed scarce.

Jabin left the jail, walking down the board sidewalk to Hanrahan’s Mercantile. A bell over the door dinged as he entered. Old Si Hanrahan, behind the counter, turned at the sound. His face was neither friendly nor hostile. “Good morning, Deputy.”

“Morning, Mr. Hanrahan. Tom around?” Tom Meadows was Hanrahan’s clerk, a youth about Jabin’s age. They were in school together and always stayed friendly.

Hanrahan closed a ledger book and looked long and hard at Dunley. “I hear the Mulcahey brothers are heading this way. Suppose you want to deputize Tom.”

“Only the marshal or the mayor can deputize, sir, but I’d sure like someone to stand with me. There’s three of the Mulcaheys and only one of me.”

“Three left, you mean,” Hanrahan said. “Thanks to you.”

“I can’t argue that, sir.”

“Seems to me if the Mulcaheys have business in town, it’s solely with you.”

Tom Meadows appeared in the door to Hanrahan’s storeroom. He said nothing, only watched and listened. Jabin glanced at his friend before saying, “That’s true, too, sir. But I have to ask.” He looked at Meadows. “Will you come out, Tom?”

Tom shrugged. “Just don’t seem like it’s the town’s fight.”

Inside, Dunley sagged, but only said, “Change your mind, I’ll be at the jail.” He nodded at Hanrahan and went out.

The story was similar everywhere he went. Some sympathized with the young deputy, but nobody wanted to stick their necks out for him. This mess was his, more than a few of them opined. Jabin never denied it. That at least seemed to raise him in some folks’ eyes, but not enough. Nobody volunteered to stand him and when he returned to the jail, it was as he left it – empty.

Jabin’s stomach churned and his feet felt strangely cold and clammy inside his boots. The jail door opened. Mayor Watkins asked, “Any luck?”

Jabin shook his head. “No, sir.”

Watkins sighed heavily. “Then there’s nothing for it.” He strode to the alcove where the rifle-rack was and chose a Winchester. “Where d’you keep the cartridges?”

Jabin stood. “You don’t have to do this, sir.”

Watkins’s face hardened. “Don’t tell me what I have to do, deputy. This is my town as much as anyone’s. As mayor, maybe more. If there’s nobody else to stand you, by God, I’ll do it myself. I’m no gunman but I can handle a rifle and you can’t take three gun-slicks on your lonesome. I’ll find a roof with a good view of Main Street. I can at least give you some cover,” he added.

The opening door forestalled more conversation. Sam Turner stood in the doorway. He seemed a little bigger, stood a little straighter, than when Jabin saw him earlier. He must have put that quarter to good use.

“We’re a little busy, Sam. What do you need?” Watkins asked.

“I heard about them Mulcaheys,” Turner said. “I come to stand you, deputy.”

Jabin and the mayor exchanged looks. Jabin said, “I appreciate it, Mr. Turner. I surely do, but—“

“I ain’t drunk, if that’s what you’re worried about,” the old man said. There was a flavor of shame to the words. He held up his hands. There were no tremors.

Jabin clenched his own fists before they could betray his fear. He was ashamed, too, though he didn’t know why. All he knew was that a drunken swamper new to town had the bravery to stand beside him when none of the folks he knew most of his life would. 

Mayor Watkins opened his mouth; the look on his face made it clear he was going to reject Turner’s offer. Before he could, Jabin out stretched his hand. “I’d be right proud to have you with us, Mr. Turner.”

Jabin and the old man shook. There was more strength in Turner’s grip than seemed possible of so dilapidated a man. “Thank you, deputy.” Jabin wasn’t sure why the old man should be thanking him.

Watkins looked annoyed, then fell into resignation. “You got a gun, Sam?”

Turner nodded. “I’ll be ready when it’s time, sir.”

There was a clatter of hooves in the street and the protesting noises of a horse forced to stop too suddenly. Fen Hurkey, a smalltime rancher, hurtled through the door, shouting, “The Mulcahey boys are on the warpath! Liquored up and rarin’ for blood!”

Watkins said, “Calm down, man! Take a breath!”

Hurkey sucked air, then said, “They come bangin’ on my door, askin’ do I got any whiskey. I tell ‘em no sir, I ain’t a drinkin’ man, but they can have all the well water they want. They grumbled amongst themselves and then the tall one, Mick I think, says, ‘Just forget the drinks ‘til we plug that marshal kid.’ I figure that’s you, Jabin.” He nodded at the deputy. “Soon’s they left, I lit a shuck down the old Bartleby trail to warn you. They can’t be more’n fifteen minutes behind me, though!”

Thanking Hurkey for the warning, Watkins sent him on his way, asking him to spread the word to keep off the street. To Jabin and Turner, he said, “Looks like it’s time, gentlemen.”

Fear swept down Jabin Dunley’s spine. He nodded and went out into the street all the same.

*

Jabin was standing before the jail several minutes later when horsemen appeared on Main Street, riding three abreast. Fen Hurkey spread the word, and the street was empty, giving them plenty of room. The Mulcaheys held their mounts to a slow trot then, halfway down the street without a word spoken between them, halted as one. The horses and men were all of a kind: big and tough-looking.

Jabin stepped into the street, fighting sickness in his stomach, buzzing in his chest, and numbness that tingled in his limbs. His gaze flicked up to the roof of the Streeter Hotel, half a block down Main. Matt Watkins should be up there by now, but Jabin could not see him. Sam Turner promised to be ready when the Mulcaheys arrived, but the brothers turned up sooner than expected and Sam was nowhere to be seen. 

A Mulcahey called out, “You the kid deputy?” He looked to be maybe thirty-five, and hard years at that. This must be Josh Mulcahey, the eldest.

Jabin swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’m Deputy Dunley, if that’s who you mean.”

“You kill my brother, Eli?”

“I shot him, yes, sir,” Jabin said, adding, “in the line of my duty.”

The Mulcaheys exchanged looks. Josh slipped off his horse; his brothers followed his lead. “Hope you enjoyed feeling like a big man, kid,” Josh Mulcahey called out. 

Jabin’s eyes went to the roof of the Streeter. He thought he saw a flash of light, as of sun winking off a gun-barrel.

Josh finished, “Because that’s all done with now.” His hand went to the gun at his hip—

A scream erupted, high and piercing. All eyes homed on the source. Mrs. Watkins and her young daughter stood before the dressmaker’s shop, bundles clutched in their arms and faces stricken at seeing armed men in the street. The girl, maybe eight years old, shrieked again – in fright or surprise, who could say?

“Get inside!” Mayor Watkins roared from the hotel’s roof. His wife turned at the sound – and so did the Mulcaheys. Mick, the tallest of the three, fired off two quick shots in the mayor’s direction, forcing Watkins to duck behind the false-front. His brothers fired a shot each, ensuring the mayor was pinned in place, before turning their guns on Jabin.

The young man drew his pistol and dove behind a water-trough for what little cover it could provide just as a round went screaming over his head. Down the street, the little Watkins girl screamed again. “Get inside! Inside!” Matt Watkins roared, his voice nearly lost amidst the sound of exploding cartridges.

Jabin peeked around the trough, afraid to shoot without knowing where the woman and child were. He saw them duck back into the dress-shop and chanced a shot at the nearest Mulcahey. It was wild and went far wide; glass shattered somewhere down the street. 

The deep-throated boom of a rifle finally sounded from the hotel roof, but it was answered by a return volley from the Mulcaheys’ six-shooters that forced the mayor back into cover. Jabin realized he could not expect much help from Watkins – and Sam Turner was still missing. He tried to raise his Colt for a more measured shot, but fear paralyzed him. 

Bullets whipped past Jabin, geysering the dirt around him and chipping away at his shelter. Already the trough sprayed water from half a dozen holes. “We’re coming for you, boy!” Josh Mulcahey shouted.

Two Mulcahey guns pinned Jabin while the third kept Watkins out of the fight. Dunley’s mind raced, but it was no good – the fear was too great a block. All he could he think was that he was going to die and that, in dying, he would betray Marshal Farrar’s trust.

Down the street, beyond the jail, came the sound of a single shot. Droopy-mustached Ned Mulcahey cried out and collapsed as blood exploded from his hip. His older brother, Josh, roared wordlessly and sent back a furious volley of return shots.

Twisting, Jabin saw Sam Turner walking up the exact middle of the street, an old Colt Army single-action revolver clutched in his fist, firing steadily as he moved forward. His shots flew past the Mulcaheys to make the dance dust around the brothers’ horses. The horses, terrified at suddenly becoming targets, whirled and raced back in the direction they had come from, screaming their protest. 

At this new threat, Mick Mulcahey wheeled, firing a shot that knocked the battered hat from Sam Turner’s head. The old man paid no heed, simply dumping shells from his revolver, reloading, and then returning the shot. 

Mick only then seemed to notice Ned flailing in the street. Putting two and two together, he cried “Old bastard!” and emptied his six-gun at Turner. A round glanced off the old man’s shoulder, knocking him backwards but not down. He stumbled as if drunk, recovered, and then carefully placed a shot into Mick’s breadbasket, sprawling the tall man into the dirt next to his brother.

Watkins saw his chance, rose from his hiding place, and fired a shot that missed Josh Mulcahey, but reminded him that he now faced three guns. Josh, seeing his brothers lying in the street, lost his mind to the blood-rage and the alcohol and charged forward, firing wildly. Sam Turner stood his ground, firing calmly once, twice, a third time before one of Mulcahey’s shots found his belly and put him down.

Jabin Dunley, in awe of the swamper’s coolness and skill, thought of how unfair it was to see a man like Josh Mulcahey kill someone like Sam Turner. His fear turned to indignation, then anger, and he stood, calling out, “Mulcahey!”

The rustler bared his teeth and raised his pistol. Jabin Dunley fired once. A purplish hole appeared in Josh Mulcahey’s cheekbone, below his left eye. The man looked shocked as he fell, dead before he hit the ground.

The deputy ran to where Sam Turner lay. The old man was propped on his good arm, struggling to hold onto his gun. He was alive, but there was too much blood for that to last much longer.

“Lord a’mighty, Mr. Turner! I didn’t know you could shoot like that.” Jabin could think of nothing else to say.

Turner found the strength somewhere to smile. “Didn’t know it myself, deputy.” He coughed violently, flecking his lips with bloody spittle. “I could once, but that was a long time ago. Before the bottle.”

Jabin felt hot tears sting his cheeks. Nobody knew a thing about Turner and now maybe nobody would. All Jabin knew was that he would be dead were it not for this man. “Don’t try to talk, sir, we’ll get the doctor—“

“No doctor. No point. Listen: you may not believe it, but you’re looking at a marshal.”

Jabin believed it. He saw how Sam Turner handled himself when it mattered. He couldn’t help contrasting it to the way he himself cowered.

“But the fear got me.” Turner was caught by another coughing fit. His skin no longer looked yellowish beneath the white whiskers; now it held the pallor of death. “Once, I was in the same situation as you, but I didn’t stand up. I ran and then I hid in a bottle for more years than I rightly know.” The pistol slipped from his grasp and he gripped Jabin’s arm. “You got to face the fear, got to win through every god-damned time. It’s the only way a lawman can do his duty. I learned too late. I saw myself in you, son, only you didn’t run and I… I…”

Turner trailed off, his voice going too soft to hear before fading entirely. Jabin called his name, shook the man’s good shoulder, but it was no use. Sam Turner was gone.

People began crowding into the street. Ned Mulcahey’s screams of pain and bluster about vengeance carried over the murmur of conversations.

Matt Watkins appeared at Jabin’s side. “God! Who’d have thought some swamper could shoot like that?”

Jabin shook his head and stood. “He wasn’t a swamper, sir. Sam Turner was a lawman. Right to the end.” 

Dunley walked to the cluster of people gathered around Ned Mulcahey. He achieved his life’s dream at a young age, but a lawman walked a very long path. Maybe someday he would catch up to men like Ernie Farrar, Ben Thomas – and Sam Turner.

“Ned Mulcahey,” Deputy Jabin Dunley said. “You are under arrest.”


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