Genre: Historical Fiction (subgenre – Western)
This is written from the perspective of a character I’ve been using in other Western-Fantasy short stories, a gambler-prophet of questionable character that I hope to develop into a novella or even full-length book. I dialed down the “magic” element to fit this week’s BlogBattle.
They say life has a rhythm, a music all its own, drummed out in the thum-thump of the heart beating in every man’s chest. They make it sound all wonderful and precious, like the gold-painted clouds and mountain peaks at sunset.
But when you’re lyin’ in the dust bleedin’ out from a gunshot wound in the back, it don’t feel so carefree and melodious as all that. Lots more gasping and choking on blood than any harps or angel-song from on High.
That old devil Lucien’s veiled threat echoes in my mind. “I’d hate for my warnings to go unheeded, Mister Jackson.”
Oh, I heard your rattling an’ hissing just fine, you low-down snake.
The sky fades in an’ out—my eyes closing, longer each time. Someone shouts for the Doc, the only man in town that’s got half a chance of keepin’ me out of the grave. Harmony’s mother cries nearby and whispers thanks to the sweet Lord Jesus for protectin’ her little one.
Woulda been mighty kind of Him to come take the bullet instead of sending me. I can’t draw breath to speak, but I think it really hard.
Harmony grabs hold of my vest and shakes me, tears cutting through the dust on her cheeks, her frail arms straining with my weight. I hear boots scuffing through the dirt and see Doc Hartford running, his little black bag of medicines and tools jangling. Then everything fades to dreams and recent memories.
* * * * *
“You know, Mister Jackson,” Lucien says, his voice calm and measured, “I’m disappointed. With a gift like yours, I expected so much more.”
The setting sun fills the sky with red and purple hues, the rolling hills and waving grass a deep indigo in the fading light. Lucien and his men are like silhouettes, lined up in front of the Branston farm. His hired guns look like specters of death, holsters hanging prominent off their hips, rifle stocks in easy reach over shoulders.
Lucien strikes me as a man likes to think he’s above all that, but I know he’ll get his hands dirty if the situation calls for it. There’s a light in his eye and a quiver of anticipation in his voice at the prospect of violence.
“The Branstons aren’t sellin’ their land,” I say again. “Not to you, Mister Lucien, nor to any of the fine gentlemen you’ve sent in the past.”
Soft wind blows and the horses stamp their feet nearby. Even they sense the tension.
“I do wish they’d reconsider,” he says. “I’m offering a fetching price. They could afford tuition at an East Coast school for their precious daughter, one that specializes in educating those with her affliction.”
Harmony took ill last year, struck with the German measles just after her eighth birthday. One morning she woke up deaf and hasn’t heard a thing since. Used to sing hymns better than anyone in the Parson’s chapel, be they woman, man, or angel of God. Still sings and dances, still holds the key most times… but the songs feel heavy, like someone threw a sandbag on her soul. She and her parents don’t need James Lucien stalkin’ around their land like a wolf eyeing the flock.
“Harmony’s doin’ just fine,” I say. “She learnt her letters before the illness struck, and still speaks clear enough to be understood.”
“That’s good. But I fear she’s not the only one with such a condition.” Lucien leans in, pats two of his boys on the shoulder. “I’d hate for my warnings to go unheeded…”
* * * * *
The sun’s started its descent behind the rough wood buildings of Redstone, which helps to keep it out of my aim. Serendipity’s hitched at a post near the saloon, more for his safety than any intention of mine to visit that establishment.
No sign of Lucien’s man, but the message said out front of the chapel at six o’clock. Maybe the Branstons and some of the other folk gathered into the Lord’s house are putting in some words on my behalf.
I’m putting myself at risk a bit standing out here in the open, trusting Lucien more than I’d like. Not trusting his honor, for sure—rather, relying on his pride.
He doesn’t just want me out of his way, or he’d have gunned me down months ago. My gift with gunfighting ain’t gonna stand up to the number of men Lucien could bring down on my head. No, he’s driven to win this thing between us on a different level. That’s why he keeps poking and prodding like a kid taking the guts out of a grandfather clock to see what makes the parts move.
I’d like to keep my guts inside my skin, if it’s all the same.
Pacing up and down the street ain’t my thing, but here I am doin’ it. My eyes flicker from the upstairs windows of the saloon with its fast-step piano music tink-a-tinking above the laughter, to the rooftop of the apothecary’s shop, to the shadowy bed of the creaky Conestoga wagon slow-rollin’ through the town. I think I got a bead on Lucien’s moral compass, so I shouldn’t be expecting an ambush. But I don’t know the man he sent, and given the choice, people have a way of choosin’ the easiest option.
Then I hear a tune on the breeze, and not some drinking song neither. Harmony Branston twirls among the daffodils and violets on the lawn beside the chapel, picking flowers and singing her heart out. “Still the small inward voice I hear… that whispers all my sins forgiven… Still the atoning blood is near… that quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven…”
There’s a glint of gunmetal from atop the sundry goods store, and my faith in Lucien crumbles to dust. It ain’t aimed at me.
I scream Harmony’s name—knowin’ full well it won’t do a bit of good—and sprint like a jackrabbit. Her eyes go wide mid-spin at the sight of me barrelin’ toward her. She stumbles, falling back, arms flailing for balance. When I’m practically on top of her, thunder cracks the silence under the clear sky, and pain shoots through my side like someone dropped a hot coal into my belly.
I grip my side—my shirt slick and warm—then fall to my knees, suddenly aware of my heartbeat. It throbs in my head and pounds in my chest like a Chickasaw war-drum, so loud and furious that maybe even Lucien can hear it, whatever hole he’s lurking in.
Harmony clutches onto me, crying for help from a Savior who taught us to pray for our enemies. Someone in that chapel best be prayin’ for Lucien…
Because when I get back on my feet, I’m bringing him some of Heaven’s wrath, and no amount of blood is gonna atone for what he done.