The man burst through the church doors, stumbling over his own uncoordinated feet and tumbling to the wooden floor. He scrambled to his feet and staggered further in, leaving the doors wide to let in the frigid night air, fluttering the candles near the altar.
Father McMannis, abandoning his rosary, leapt up from the pew and rushed toward the drunkard.
“Let that cheatin’ whore-fuck foller me in hurr and we’ll see what happens,” the drunk said, producing a rifle. The gun wasn’t the long, accurate weapon favored by the cattle drivers that passed through, but the shorter, sawed-off tool brought into use by outlaws, thieves and rustlers who happened into town. The stock more closely resembled a pistol grip and the barrel was missing more than a few inches from its length.
The drunk turned, his eyes wild, and glared back through the door. Tobacco spit dribbled from his stubbly chin and onto his shirt. Tommy, who swept the floor near the entrance, thought for a minute that the man was staring at him, but he wasn’t. That’s when the second man entered. Just as drunk, though half as large, he roared at the first.
“Hand it over, shit-sniffer,” he demanded, trying to steady his hand. In it was a Schofield revolver.
“This is a house of worship,” Father McMannis said, rushing to stand between the two. “Put away your guns and settle this dispute like civilized gentlemen.”
“Shut your hole, preacher man,” the first drunkard said, raising his rifle to aim past the priest.
“No,” Father McMannis shouted, lunging at the rifle, trying to wrench it from the man’s grip. If he could only prevent one of them from firing, perhaps the other would leave. If only…
Then the gun went off. Father McMannis arched his back and froze, his hand still gripping the rifle. Tommy stared, wide-eyed, as the second man thumbed back the hammer of his revolver and aimed. As Father McMannis fell aside, the revolver went off a second time, striking the fat drunk in the gut. He cried out, tumbling to the floor, clawing at his ruptured belly as black blood poured out onto the dimly lit planks.
“Serves you both right,” the man said, scowling at the two fallen men.
Tommy ran. Not out the door like he thought he would, but to Father McMannis. Shot in the back, the young priest was dying. His eyes darted here and there, but finally fixed on the boy’s face as he gasped for breath. His lungs were punctured by the bullet, but he still tried to speak.
“What?” Tommy Cooper asked, unable to hear the priest’s words.
McMannis’ lips moved again, but only rattling gurgles issued forth. He was Cooper’s dad, in all the ways that mattered. He’d raised him these past six years. He’d taught him to read the Good Book, arithmetic, how to cook, and even a little carpentry. It was the Lord’s work, he had said. Being a carpenter. Now he couldn’t say anything. The man in the doorway had taken his speech. Taken his life.
Father McMannis tried to speak one last time, tried to tell Tommy Cooper something important, profound, but the words were lost. This his light went out forever. His eyes, still open, were somehow dimmer. The soul had left.
Beside him, the fat drunk still moaned and screamed. Blood, black as the tobacco spit on his chin, still poured from his belly, staining his shirt and the newly swept floor.
“Serves you both right,” the man in the doorway said.
Tommy Cooper turned his head, watching the man. He had turned around again and was facing out into the night. Perhaps looking back at the saloon down the street from which he had no doubt come. He leaned against the door, bracing himself to keep from falling. Such a sad state for a man to put himself in. Too drunk to even stand.
Tommy picked up the screaming man’s gun. Like his altar server robes, the sawed-off rifle was too big for him, but he held it steady. He knew how to shoot. He’d helped out around town enough times, shot enough jack rabbits and coyotes to know his way around a gun. There was no stock to press against his shoulder, to steady his aim, but in the end he didn’t need it.
“Bastard.” The word burped from his quivering lips, the first curse to escape his mouth in his entire life.
The man in the door didn’t hear, or didn’t care. Cursed from a child didn’t carry weight with him. Then the rifle leapt in Tommy’s hands, almost dislodging from his grip, and the man’s head blew apart. His face flew out into the cold night air, flying all the way back to the saloon for all Tommy cared. He snapped forward and fell out the church doors, landing with a thud in the dirt street beyond.
Tommy’s eyes popped open, inviting in the sharp light of the West Texas sun. He’d had the dream again. The same dream he’d been having for months. Sitting up, he shook the dust from his hair. Not that it mattered being as how the sand and his hair were the same color. The wagon bounced along the road, heading west beside the railroad toward the town of Providence.
Uncurling from his nest, he looked around through squinting eyes. The landscape was the same in every direction. Scrubby trees protruded from jagged rocks and cacti filled in the spaces between.
He hadn’t known where the wagon was headed when he hid in the back. It was on the road out of town, leaving Dirtdraugh where Father McMannis was killed, and heading west. The driver, an old, rough man, thin as a fence post, seemed ornery but not wicked. And riding alongside him was a kind-looking woman with dark hair and a pretty dress. They wouldn’t be pleased with his tagging along, but he didn’t feel they’d be threatening.
Once they were too far along to turn back, he’d made his presence known and his assumption proven right.
Scully was an old cripple from San Antonio who had worked just about every job a man could work, save for preacher and pimp. He’d worked on the railroad, herded cattle, shoed horses, and tracked outlaws. His chin was covered in white stubble and gray wires protruded from beneath his hat. He wore brown trousers and a maroon shirt that was stained worse than a saloon floor. Scully’s left leg had taken a lead ball in the war that struck bone and it never healed properly. Surgeons in the Confederate camps were barely a step above butchers and there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t think that taking the bullet out himself would have been a better idea.
Now, old and leaning heavily on a crutch, Scully was mostly retired. He worked sporadically, smoked occasionally, and drank regularly. Currently, his job was to drive this wagon west to Providence and if he could get there without troubling Ms. Meda Jacobs, it would be all the better.
They’d run about twenty miles without hardly a word between them and were ready to make a final stop for the night when they’d heard the noise in the back. Meda and Scully both turned toward each other, then glanced back into the wagon. A trunk full of clothes, some prospecting supplies, a tent and a few other items were all packed neatly back there along with their food and cooking gear. And beneath the tarpaulin, something moved.
“Get out from beneath there,” Meda commanded in a tone that seemed more firm than a lady in a dress ought to command.
A second later, a sandy haired kid popped his head out. He was lean and tan and wore a shirt and trousers that were tailored for a kid a little larger than himself. But it was his eyes that caught Meda’s attention. His solemn gaze came from two different colored eyes. The left green and the right brown.
“What are you doing back there, you little cuss?” Scully called back, turning to spit after he asked the question.
“Leaving town,” Tommy Cooper replied.
Meda glared at him. “How’d you get back there?”
“I hopped in when you weren’t looking,” he replied plainly.
“You’re a bit short on manners, aren’t you?” She asked.
“Yes ma’am,” he replied with a slight smile. For a split second his almost scornful face seemed to light up. But the flash of innocent youth faded fast.
Meda smiled back. She wore her brunette hair long, tucked behind her ears and held down from the wind with a wide brimmed hat. She wore a nice green dress that matched her eyes in color. Her nose reminded Tommy of the Indian women who he’d seen, but her face didn’t resemble people from that heritage.
“I like you,” she said plainly.
“Think we ought to switch him for hoppin’ on?” Scully asked.
Meda considered the notion a moment, then shook her head. “Can you cook?” She asked.
“Looks like we got ourselves a cook,” she said.
“Looks like we got ourselves some trouble,” Scully said, then turned to spit off the side of the wagon again.
“He won’t be trouble,” she replied.
“Not him,” Scully replied.
Meda turned slowly to see three men standing in the road. They must have been hiding behind the boulders, waiting for the supply wagon to pass.
Scully glanced down at the coach gun by his side and shook his head.
“Best keep your head down, kid,” he said while slowing the horses.
Tommy looked about, and slipped his hand around the rifle he had hidden beneath the tarpaulin. He’d kept that drunk bastard’s gun and if another outlaw intended to do him harm, he’d use it. Most twelve year olds would be too afraid, but he wasn’t. He hadn’t been then and he wasn’t now.
“Howdy there,” one of the men called to the wagon. He was tall and thin, and rested the heel of his hand on a pistol slung low in the center of his belt. “Whatcha haulin’?”
Scully squinted and spat another stream of tobacco juice into the dust. “Pot and some beans. Got a few picks for the general store down in Providence. Not that they ever get any silver out of them mines no more. Got a tarp here with more holes in it than fisherman’s net.” He nodded his head. “And got some women’s clothing, if you’d be interested in that.” He chuckled to himself.
Meda smiled. Insulting a bandit was never a good idea, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped.
“Now why would we be interested in that?”
“Just sayin’,” Scully replied.
Beside the tall man was a short, fat man who was in desperate need of a shirt that extended all the way down to his breeches. He held a shotgun, double barrel that was kept at its full length.
“There wouldn’t be a strong box up there from the Fargo, would there?” Slim asked while the third man stepped closer. His pistol was already drawn and trained on Scully.
“Don’t reach for that scattergun,” the third man said. He was handsome, in a rough sort of way. Might have cleaned up nice if he traded his guns for a suit. The nub of a spent cigar protruded from his teeth.
Casually, he strolled up to the wagon and hopped up the steps to stand beside Meda.
“Ma’am,” he began, tipping his hat with his free hand. The other was still trained on Scully. “Would you be so kind as to hand me that awful weapon before someone gets hurt?”
Meda glanced quickly at the three men, beginning with Slim and ending with Handsome. She took a breath. Then reached slowly for the coach gun. She didn’t want to startle him into shooting Scully. “Sure,” she replied. Meda lifted it by the stock and handed it to Handsome.
Once he had the shotgun in hand, he slipped his revolver back into its holster. “Now,” he began, but was halted by a flash of motion. Meda swung, and Handsome’s throat opened up. Slim pulled his gun, but the knife that had slit his partner’s throat was already spinning through the air and his target was leaping from the wagon, pulling Handsome down with her.
Fatty raised his shotgun and blasted a hole in Handsome’s back, ending the job that Meda had started. Both bodies fell to the ground and Handsome took another round of buckshot in the back. Meda sprang up with the coach gun in hand and emptied both barrels into Fatty, opening his chest like a can of beans while Slim bolted off the road, clutching his gut where Meda’s knife still stuck.
Calmly, she pulled Handsome’s gun from his belt and stepped forward beyond the horses. She thumbed back the hammer and took aim. Slim made it a few more steps before the slug hit his back, snapping his spine. He lurched forward and collapsed in a heap.
Meda went straight for her knife, cleaning it on Slim’s shirt before slipping it back in the sheath hidden in her dress. Once done, she methodically relieved the three men of their guns, ammunition, and what little money they had.
Handsome’s boots were nice, and looked to be the right size. “Scully, I believe these are yours,” she said, tossing the black boots up to the wagon driver.
They had a single horse, tied up behind the boulders. It was a scrawny thing, mostly bones and leather, but it might sell for something once they reached Providence. After tying it behind the wagon, she tossed the rest of the loot in the wagon and reloaded her coach gun.
“Now I can see why the Fargo hired you to shoot and me to drive,” Scully said.
Meda shook her head. “I got blood on my dress,” she said disdainfully.
From his vantage point across the street, Seth Romero watched as the old cripple and the young woman unloaded the strongbox at the Fargo. He’d have thought the bank would hire at least one competent gun to guard the shipment, but bean counters weren’t always the sharpest tools in the shed.
Once finished, they wheeled the wagon over to Marvel’s General, the only store in Providence. A worker greeted the pair and began hauling in goods while the woman tacked up a poster outside the store. As soon as she finished, Seth strolled over to have a gander.
“Wanted,” he mumbled to himself while staring at the drawing. “Seth Romero.” The picture wasn’t drawn as well as some of the others had been, but the farther west one got, the less artistic talent could be found. Though despite the lack of talent, the picture was accurate enough to turn greedy eyes in his direction. The wiry, gray hair, the old derby, the stubble on his chin, and the eye patch over his right eye. He continued reading the poster. “Coach robber. Wears an eye patch on right eye and carries a Henry Repeater. $200 reward.”
Seth glanced down at his rifle. It had served him well in the past, but now it was a bull’s-eye. He propped the rifle against the wall and tore down the poster. After wadding it up, he moved the eye patch to his left eye and blinked a few times. Once his right eye was accustomed to the light, he walked to the door of Marvel’s, swapping hats with a passed-out drunk along the way. The old derby rested well on the drunk’s head, and Seth’s balding scalp was neatly covered with the flat-brim hat. It fit nicely, so he added a little bounce to his step and walked inside the general store.
“Rat bastard,” the woman from the coach mumbled as she exited Marvel’s, stepping past Seth along the way. He slipped past her, trying not to draw attention to himself until he could ditch the Henry rifle he still carried.
Denny Marvel was a squat little man with slick, black hair that clung to his scalp and a spreading bald patch that he wore proudly. A thin mustache lined his upper lip which always seemed to smile. He wore a tan shirt with suspenders, both stretched by his ability to never miss a meal. As Seth approached, Denny placed a shotgun and two revolvers on the shelf behind the counter.
“How much will you give me for this?” Seth asked, holding out the Henry.
Denny examined it carefully, as if actually considering offering a fair price.
“Good condition,” he smiled. “I’d pay at least $10.”
Seth almost coughed. “No shit you’ll pay at least ten. Hows about twenty?”
Denny Marvel pursed his lips, then slowly shook his head. “I’m afraid that all I can offer is ten. And that’s a generous offer.”
Well, if things in this town were that cheap, then he’d have no trouble picking up a replacement. Seth sighed, not wanting to sell the gun for so little, but he needed that gun as far from his person as possible.
He accepted the offer and looked at the paltry amount of money. “Those two Scofield revolvers that the lass just sold,” he began, pointing to the pistols behind the counter. “How much for them? Belts and holsters included.”
“These,” Marvel began with another smile, his face lighting up. “These are fine indeed. I could sell the pair for, say… fifty.”
Seth’s eyes widened. “Your dick, you will.” He grabbed his Henry rifle and bounced the dollars off Denny’s forehead.
“That’s my rifle,” Marvel shouted. “I got rights to call the sheriff and report you a thief.”
“And that’s your money,” Seth pointed to the floor. “And I got desire to cram it up your arse. Worm-eating little shit.” With that, he took leave of Marvel’s General.
Beating down the town merchant wouldn’t do him any good, especially since he was trying to lay low, but damn if he didn’t want to turn back around and hurt that man.
“He swears he isn’t a Jew,” the dark-haired woman said, leaning against the hitching post.
“Not even half?” Seth asked.
She shook her head.
“How much did you sell those pistols for?” He asked.
“Got twelve for the pair plus the shotgun,” she said, shaking her head. “The shotgun isn’t worth much, but…”
“I’d have given twice that for the revolvers alone,” he said.
“Meda Jacobs,” she said, extending her hand.
“Todd Grimmell,” Seth replied, accepting her greeting. She shook hands like a man, firm and purposeful, not dainty and delicate like a lady. Seth noticed for the first time the blood on her dress. “Cut yourself?”
She glanced down. “Woman has to earn a living.”
He tipped his hat. “I’m off to the saloon. If you meet anyone who wants to buy a rifle, send’em my way.”
“What kind is it?”
He paused. Shit. “It’s a Henry.”
She stared at him, longer than he would have liked. “I’ll keep that in mind, Mr. Grimmell.”
Seth tipped his hat before stepping off the porch and starting for the saloon. So she was the hired gun who kept the coach safe. She bought those three weapons, paid for them with the blood of bandits. And he had all but said he was a wanted man. Damn those fine dresses. Why couldn’t she have dressed like a trail hand?
Well, if she came looking for an easy bounty, she’d find out why no one else had ever collected on his old ass. Fifty-six summers and never spent a minute before a jury.
On his way up the steps, mere feet from the batwing doors of the saloon, Seth came under attack. The doors flew open and a scrawny kid charged through, bouncing off of his chest and tumbling down the steps, almost taking Seth with him. A bottle of whiskey went rolling across the dusty ground and the kid’s hat flopped down beside it.
“Watch yer footing,” Seth growled.
“Sorry mister,” the kid said, retrieving his belongings. He began limping away, trying to pick up pace once more.
“Hey kid,” Seth called out, noticing for the first time that the kid was missing two fingers off his left hand. “Know anyone who wants to buy a rifle?”
The kid slowed, bouncing to a halt and spun. His eyes lit up.
Lot Morse pawed at the new Henry Repeater. The man, Todd Grimmell, had been all to eager to sell it and Lot’s stepfather more than willing to buy it. His old Sharps rifle had been stolen a month back and without the ability to shoot the coyotes that ventured into the area, their goat herd was thinning rapidly. For the first couple of weeks, all had been well. But these past few days…
Jim had walked into town to purchase a box of shells for the new gun, knowing full well that Denny Marvel would swindle the kid out of every dime he had if given the chance. So Jim walked there himself to get bullets at a fair price. It was one of the few times that Jim left the house. Mostly he sat in the kitchen and sipped his whiskey, but without bullets, there would be no goats, and no money. People paid for their milk and it was hell getting a cow to produce out here in hell’s country. Not enough grass grew to feed a single dairy, let alone a herd. And even if there was food enough, the railroad had scared most into not giving milk.
So goats it was. Tough meat and tough work. They were stubborn as the clouds that refused to give rain and hard as the rocks underfoot. And mean as hornets. Lot had been rammed and bitten more times than he could count, just trying to feed them. He’d even seen them kill a coyote once. It ran into the pen to kill a kid, and got butted to death. While it lay there twitching, the goats swarmed around it and trampled and butted its corpse.
Now, it would be up to him to defend those strange creatures. He was pretty sure they were from the devil. At least that’s what was said about them in one of the Penny Dreadfuls he’d read last year. Their horns and strange eyes and foul tempers. But he’d protect them all the same.
“Ma,” he called out.
“Yeah,” she replied from the kitchen.
“Can I shoot it?” He asked. “Just to see if it works.”
She appeared around the corner in the dark house. The light from the doorway behind her lit up her hair like a golden halo. “Just once. And make sure it’s accurate.”
He bounced up and down, grabbing the gun and loading one of the shells that Todd Grimmell had left behind.
Out back, Lot placed an old bean tin on the fence post. If he could hit it all the way from the house, he could hit a coyote in the head with little trouble. After pacing back to the back door, he worked the lever, cocking the rifle, and took aim.
Lining up the sights, Lot squeezed the trigger. The gun leapt in his hands and the can popped off the fence post.
“Haha!” Lot cheered, running over to the fence where the can had rested. He reached down, picking it up with his thumb and two fingers, all that his left hand had, and examined it. A clean hole in and out. Perfect shot.
He looked at his incomplete hand. If he hadn’t lost those two fingers, would Jim have treated him differently? Would he be more… useful, around the house? He pushed the thoughts from his mind. He’d be useful soon. They would no longer have a coyote problem. He could stay up all night and he would. He’d see to it that no mongrels attacked their herd after today.
Lot limped back to the door, rifle and can in hand. He had to show Mom how well the Henry shot. The old Sharps was accurate, but it had also been old. With this new Henry, the coyotes wouldn’t get near their goats.
He pulled open the door and was stepping inside when he heard the noise. Turning around, he spotted the wagon tearing across the horizon. There was no driver, but the horses seemed to be whipped into a fury. They sprinted toward Providence, rattling the old wagon behind them. It bounced over rocks and fallen branches, threatening to rattle apart before reaching the town.
Lot walked inside to tell his mom.