It’s been awhile. Too long! I finished a big project and am halfway through hacking around on another. These flash fiction challenges — from the flash fiction guru himself, Chuck Wendig — are always a lot of fun and always do a good job of stirring the creative juices (eww). Anyway, this one is (sort of) an abject failure. The prompt was a story about “new life” in 1,000 words. This clocks in at more than 1,700. But I like Rip, so to hell with it. Enjoy.

Daddy was angry, I could tell. He rode a half-length ahead of me, a sure sign he didn’t want to talk.

He was mad anyway, having to leave behind Maybelle Parker, who had come all the way around the lake and through most of the Shivering Wood to get to our cabin and cook us dinner. They’d sent me and Stella off to bed right after supper. I got tired of watching them talk — his head leaned low, resting on the hand of his left arm, crooked sharp on the table, smiling, looking into her eyes, their faces just a little too close, and her, with that long, curly brown hair, and her small, pretty pink face and big, blue eyes just staring back at him. I crawled out on the roof to see the starlight.

Our roof was the best place in Fox Osage to see the stars, see the thin sliver of moonlight reflecting off the still water of Lake Chaskachitto. I guess that was the other reason Daddy was mad.

I had been so lost in the trail of stars and the black night sky that I hadn’t heard Truck Morrison ride up. But when he knocked on the door, I jumped a little and my compass fell out of my pocket, clanged the metal roof. Didn’t matter how fast I scrambled back around to my window, Daddy had the ears of an owl.

“Dammit, Jeremiah, I’ve told you a thousand times not to crawl out on that roof. Now come on, get dressed, get the horses ready and saddle up.” It was all he said before giving Ms. Maybelle a quick peck on the cheek and heading out the door with big Truck Morrison beside him.

“You sure ol’ Hubert’s not just scarin’ himself, Truck? You know how he gets sometimes.” Even Truck Morrison, Daddy’s deputy who worked the night shift at the jail, could tell something was wrong. He kept his horse apace, a few yards off to the left.

“Yeah, that’s right, Rip, he sure does. But I ain’t never seen Hubert like this. Somethin’ scared him real good. He was runnin’ aroun’ frantic, sayin’ he had to get outta town, was in some kinda trouble…”

“Well, what the hell is it?”

“I dunno, Rip. Best you talk to him, see if you can figure it.”

I could tell that wasn’t the answer Daddy wanted to hear, and I just put my head down, pulled my jacket against the breeze, and looked up at the million stars in the sky. I listened to the sounds of the night. A mockingbird called through the brush, far off, maybe halfway across the lake. The cool wind rustled the tops of the trees and they whispered together. The ker-klack sound of the horses going down the trail past the lake was almost hypnotizing.  

Finally, we got to town.

We stopped short of the hitch post at the Tack & Canter, Hubert O’Connelly’s bar and the only place in town anybody left awake might be. Both Truck Morrison and I were behind Daddy.

Daddy’s horse, a tall palomino he loved named Alshain, snuffed out a dense cloud of vapor, and he patted him gentle on the side. The big horse tacked left, then stopped, shook his head, and got real quiet.

Truck and I looked at each other, then back to Daddy. He was just sitting there, in the mount, not moving. His eyes were closed, a statue up in that saddle.

I was about ready to speak up when Daddy suddenly dismounted.

I don’t think Daddy liked it when I came in the Tack & Canter, Fox Osage’s bar, but he was in such a foul, gloomy mood, I just dismounted behind him and walked in next to Truck Morrison. Neither of them said a word.  

“Evenin’, Sheriff Crowley.”

“Evenin’ Hubert. Tough night?”

“Might say that.” Hubert O’Connelly, a sweaty man was sweating hard that night.

“Hubert,” Daddy sighed. “I had to leave a date with Maybelle Parker to come down here tonight. She cooked up beans with a ham hock, biscuits and gravy, steamed some carrots, and cooked me as fine a steak as I’ve had in a long time. Truck had me leave the food — and her — half cold to come down here. Now you want to tell me what the hell’s going on?”

“Sheriff Crowley, I… well,” he was rigid behind the bar, seemed frozen. He wiped his brow with a dirty white rag. “Well, I…,” he laughed nervously and stayed where he was. We hadn’t even taken one step in from the swinging front doors of the Tack & Canter.

Daddy spun faster than I could see. He had the big Peacemaker out in his hand, up over the door, and fired off one shot. I thought I heard two, and then realize someone else had fired a shot in the distance.

Daddy fired again out the front door.   

“Where’s the rest of ‘em, Hubert!” Daddy yelled without turning around.

“Not far,” the voice dripped poison and darkness from behind the bar. All three of us spun to see a gangly, pale man with a gun to Hubert O’Connelly’s head.

“Who’re you,” when Daddy asked, it didn’t too often sound like much of a question.

“Don’t much matter who I am, Sheriff. Me an’ my partner up there, the one you just shot, we heard ol’ Hubert here come into some money recently. Thought we’d come down here ta’ Fox Osage, see ‘bout gettin’ a piece a’ that.”

“You made a mistake, friend.”

“That a fact, Sheriff? Where I’m standin’, I got my money-maker right here,” he shook poor Hubert, who had started to cry. “And though that was a mighty good trick, shootin’ my partner off the roof across the way, I don’t think ya’ got what it takes to hit me before I get a bullet in ol’ Hubert, here. So me an’ him just gonna back outta here, head to his place, an’ start diggin’ fer that bundle o’ dough in his garden at his house down the way, just like where he says…”

The tall man smiled a sick smile and straightened up Hubert.

“Your Jim Darling McGee, out of Fort Worth. I heard about you. They say you travel with an Indian sniper name of John-bird.”

Daddy hadn’t moved, and he didn’t look down at me as I spoke. The man at the bar with the gun to the head of Hubert O’Connelly just smiled.

“Got a bright boy there, Sheriff. Be a shame if…”

Daddy’s Peacemaker bellowed out from his hip. The Colt single action in Jim Darling’s hand blew apart at the barrel and the handle splintered into a million wooden spindles. The pieces of the gun blew back into his face, and he fell back against the bar, knocking down several bottles along the way. Hubert O’Connelly cried out. His own face was cut from the shrapnel and would bruise later, likely, but he was alive.

“Don’t ever threaten my family,” Daddy said to the man moaning behind the bar. “Go get him up, Truck. Cuff him. Clean his face, then get him in a cell. Call him if you need to, but set the bar real high for Doc. You hear me, Truck?

Truck just nodded, his hat flopping up and down frenetically.

“Go to it then. You,” Daddy turned his attention to me. “There’s a man out there in the alley behind the drug store. Go around there and find him. He’s gonna be hurt good if he isn’t dead. But be careful. He may still have that rifle. Here.” Daddy kept a Cimarron revolver, black, in a holster tucked at his back. His utility gun, he called it.

He handed it to me.

“If he makes a move with that rifle, or he got a knife in his boot, shoot him.”

I looked up at Daddy, gun in my hand.

“Son, you’re old enough to walk into a bar with me and Truck, then you’re old enough to help us with business.” He paused and I thought I saw him hold back a smile. “You ain’t the only one on a rooftop causin’ trouble tonight, I suppose. Go.”

I went out the swinging doors, checking the Cimarron.

I checked it five more times before I got across the street and to the back of the drug store.

The man lying in the back was only just beginning to regain consciousness. He was moaning, holding his left arm with his right hand. I noticed blood, all mixed with the dust from the dirt of the back alley, all down his face, too. He opened his eyes and looked at me.

“Can you walk?” I asked, trying not to let the business end of the Cimarron shake. I hadn’t remembered to look for the rifle.

He nodded slow.

“Then get up.”

He chuckled as he struggled to stand up. He was incredibly tall, dressed in dark pants with riding chaps that looked worn, a black vest and a dark shirt and a half bandolier of bullets. He had long, dark hair with a small braid and small, red and white ties down the end of it.

“Left my rifle.”

“We’ll get it later. Move.”

“You are a boy.”

“A boy that knows how to shoot. Move.”

John-bird began to shuffle. It was quite a struggle for him, being shot, falling from the roof, and all.

Then, he stopped and turned to me.

“Your father. You know why he stopped outside the bar?” His eyes were dark, wells into, I don’t know, a blackness darker than the darkest night sky. And then he smiled and I suddenly saw the reflected starlight, the heat, the radiance of a thousand distant suns.

“No,” I said, careful.

“He knew. Riding up. We had cleared out that bar. No one in it. He heard it. That’s pretty good.”

“Yeah,” I said, mad, suddenly, that I hadn’t thought of it myself.

“But you know what he really heard, boy?”

“No,” I said again.

The tall man leaned down and put his face near to mine. There was a lot of blood in his hair, dripping down his cheek, his chin. Daddy had gotten him somewhere on the head. I figured Doc would need to look at him.

The starlight darkness eyes looked into mine.

“He heard me. He felt me there on the roof. He knew,” John-bird the rifleman straightened up and turned to walk. “He knew I was there, boy. Knew he’d have to shoot me off that roof.”

“He ought to have killed you.”

“But he didn’t. Gave me new life. New life is a gift few get to give. And that is why I will give my life for your father now. By the sun, it is his. By the starlight in the night sky, my life is his.”

Published in response to a flash fiction challenge at Terribleminds.

© 2018 by Benjamin J. Kirby
All rights reserved.