It is time once again for Creative Loafing’s annual Fiction Contest, and this year I offered up a submission for consideration. Didn’t make it to the top ten, so I thought I’d go ahead and post it here. Enjoy.
“Well,” he said, coughing, bringing blood to his lips, “it’s good to have low friends in high places. Sorta like Cash MacLeod.”
The outlaw Red Pelley tried to laugh but just coughed once again and spat blood on the floor of the dusty engine. His right hand clutched his gut, his left shook as he pointed a finger at the skinny young boy and the tall man with the blue eyes. He straightened as best he could and staggered back, halfway through the doorway of the sweltering locomotive. The steaming train roared, the engine churning, pistons driving the iron wheels.
# # # #
The Great Northern had left Grand Forks before the dry, yellow prairie was touched with the sun’s first light. By mid-day, the whistle was crying long and loud as the train chuffed out of the weathered Sioux Falls station, heading southbound towards Wichita across the dismal plain.
# # # #
Cash MacLeod’s gambling career ended the day his heart failed him in dramatic fashion at a poker table in a forgotten, mud-puddle town called Thief River Falls. Cash MacLeod, handsome in his green wool suit, emerald vest, white ruffled shirt, and dapper, narrow Kentucky Colonel tie, had been uncomfortable and short of breath since the day before. Suddenly, and to the great surprise of those at the table with him, he lurched. Rising violently halfway out of his chair, he clutched his chest with his right hand, bit his cigar clean in half, and pitched forward. His collapse upended the table. Poker chips and whiskey glasses soared across the room.
He had held aces backed with a pair of sevens.
Cash MacLeod told anyone who asked that for the better part of forty years he had scraped out a living gambling across the country, never staying in one town for too long. After all, he would say, he was a gambling man, a man of the road, not from anywhere in particular. A ghost! A wanderer! Cash always smiled his charming smile and let them have their fun guessing where he was from. North Mississippi? Alabama? East Tennessee?
Inevitably, someone would ask about his time in the war. Cash MacLeod said he had been recruited as a cook’s apprentice for a unit out of Boston, and that he had never seen much action, never served on the front lines.
“Low days, friend,” he would say, furrowing his brow. “Hard days to be a gambler as fine as myself in a time of war.” He would then tell his own strange version of war stories. Makeshift tables behind a mess tent, all night impromptu games with homesick soldiers, or low-stakes poker with the wounded, an apparent sort of recreational ministry.
Cash MacLeod would pack his rickety wagon bed with meager supplies, hitch his old mule, and leave each town in the early morning light, never to return. When he arrived in the next town, he would enter the saloon and, soon enough, pull together a card game.
All of his stories, of course, were incredible lies.
# # # #
Atop the northern edge of the rocky crags of a desolate Ozark mountain known as Harper’s Reach, a dark silhouette of a dozen men on horseback frames against the late afternoon sun and the darkening blue sky. One horse whinnies and snuffs. Another, sensing the anxious energy, takes half a trot to the side, then back to still in the late summer air. Below them, near the base of the mountain, stretches out rolling fields of wildflowers and, beyond that, the great prairie towards Oklahoma, Kansas and the half-explored West beyond the purple mountains, the rolling foothills, and their own sight.
Down the steep mountain and through the middle of the prairie run glimmering train tracks. They cut into Harper’s Reach, then curve, sharp, into the hard, gray stone, turning fore, then aft, snaking up the side of the mountain like the smoke rising from the cigarettes of the men on horseback.
# # # #
By the time the pine coffin was set in the empty boxcar, the only true thing left of the legend of Cash MacLeod, in either his telling or ours, was that he had died at the poker table.
Me and a handful of boys behind the five and dime, shooting marbles, had built fiction on top of incredible fiction in the name of Cash MacLeod. He had died on board a Mississippi paddle steamer. There had been hundreds, then thousands at stake. Drunk on a night of winnings and whiskey, he had insulted his host and provoked a knife fight, which, of course, had evolved into a gunfight.
It wasn’t long before sinister characters were introduced.
Kid Curry had shot him through the heart. Then it was Bill Longley had put one right between the eyes. Then it was Texas Jack Vermillion unloading on him.
“Texas Jack, hm? Interesting. How ‘bout… Red Pelley.”
A sharp wind blew the dust down the road as Daddy stepped out from behind the corner of the five and dime, a sad smile on his face. Each one of us jumped when we heard him speak, leaving our shooting marbles among the shameful fiction on the ground at our feet.
Red Pelley and his diabolical gang had robbed more trains in their time than any other outlaws in America. He had been locked up in a federal penitentiary — twice — and managed to escape both times. More than two dozen railroad men had been killed at the cruel hand of Red Pelley.
“Bud Paulson, Solomon Jenkins, Mickey Williams,” Daddy said, laughing at his own joke. “And the rest of you boys — get on home. Don’t make me come tell your folks you’re late for supper on account of telling nonsense stories about poor Cash MacLeod. Jeremiah,” he said, turning his attention to me, “I’ve been looking for you. Come with me.”
And with that, my friends scrambled away without another word. Daddy didn’t talk for nearly a quarter mile before he spoke.
“Do you know who Cash MacLeod was, son? Because those friends of yours sure don’t.”
I thought for a moment.
“No, sir. Not really.”
“Jeremiah, making up stories about someone isn’t very kind. Besides,” he said, almost more to himself than to me. “I reckon Cash MacLeod told enough nonsense stories about himself to last a lifetime. Doesn’t need anymore for you boys.”
“No, sir,” I said, head low, ashamed for my friends and myself.
“You know,” my father said. “Sometimes when we don’t know anything about someone, we want to make up stories about them. Hell, maybe it’s something in us, something we need to do. I don’t know. What I do know is that Cash MacLeod wasn’t a bad man. In fact, he was good. And these last years he was a gambler, he’d only use his winnings to help people. He didn’t need that money.”
“No,” Daddy said. “And now, he’s coming home. And he’s got one last gift to give.”
Then Daddy smiled down at me and told me the story of Cash MacLeod.
Cash MacLeod was born here in Fox Osage before it was even a town.
During the war, he was a rifleman, saving the life of a General in east Tennessee, among other heroic feats barely to be believed. He had been shot three times and survived. Cash MacLeod had earned more medals in the desperate battles of the Civil War than anyone else in his battalion.
After the war, he purchased vast tracts of land across the southern edge around the Boston Mountains. When the railroad barons came through, he sold much of it for a profit most people could only dream about.
He decided to travel the country and chronicle his journeys. As he roamed, he took up gambling. Of course, it was only a cover.
Cash MacLeod visited communities around the nation, quietly giving money to doctors, hospitals, and those who were helping others. He gave his money to the people who were rebuilding war-torn towns and villages in the north and the south. And he did all of it without taking any credit.
In his will, he deeded what was left of his land to the government, stipulating that it must become a preserve, under the care of the federal government. As for the money he had left piled up in a New York bank, he gave every dime of it to the people of Fox Osage, for them to build and preserve their city. And, if they saw fit, to help other cities, too, as best they could.
Cash MacLeod was no rambling gambler living from one town to the next having shootouts with notorious criminals. He was a hero.
As we approached the small wooden-slat train station of the edge of town, I could see Daddy’s deputies — big Truck Morrison along with John-bird and Tam McGee — in the window, all talking to Mr. Hargraves, the station master, and Mr. Pulley, the Western Union man.
# # # #
The men ride down the mountain like devils chasing the wind, horses blowing steam from their flared nostrils, hooves kicking dirt, rock, and gravel into the evening air. The Great Northern has steamed into sight.
# # # #
The tall man with the rough-cut face and the blue eyes placed his service-issue Colt .45 revolver on the bed, along with the holster. Jeremiah watched as it lay gleaming in the lamplight.
Rip Crowley also pulled out a smaller gun, a Remington .38, and a leather holster of its own.
“Put this on,” he said, looking at his son.
Jeremiah couldn’t speak. He carefully took the gun and the holster and stared at it for a long time.
“Jeremiah,” the man said, putting a hand on his son’s shoulder. “I need you. More important, your town needs you. This is where you live, where your sister lives, where I live, where Miss Maybelle lives, and all your friends. It’s time — time you learned how to keep it safe.”
# # # #
The engine, whistling like a lonely ghost, will slow and the train will all but crawl just before the first deep curve at the edge of the woods. After it exits the first dark tunnel, the men on horseback pull up to the engine, near the front, mount off from their horses, and begin the climb back towards the cab. Eight will cover the men on the train, including the engineer, the two brakemen, the fireman shoveling coal, and the conductor. The other four will head back, hopping car to car, through the bundles of mail, the crates of dry goods, and the barrels of whiskey, beer, and cider until they find the coffin of Cash MacLeod.
One of them will kick it off its raised platform, letting the cold, stiff body roll to the shaking floor of the box car. Two of the men with bandanas around their mouths and noses will scramble through the old man’s belongings.
Somewhere in there will be a locked metal box, they’ve been told, delivered from a bank in New York, where it met the train in Wichita. In that box is a deed to a cut of land that almost reaches across two states. Another piece of folded, parched paper is a bank note and the last will and testament of Cash MacLeod.
They’ll kill the men on the train and take the box and the paper back to a man who lives in the shadows.
# # # #
The first of their problems presented itself as they climbed onto the engine from horseback.
There was no one in the cab of the train.
Each of the dozen men with bandannas over their mouths and noses looked at one another, one crowding behind the next, until the one seemingly in charge barked a rough order.
“They’re gone! Must’ve seen us comin’. Go and check the cars. All of ya’! They can’t be too far!”
And each of the men made their way around the coal car towards the freight cars trailing behind the engine.
Two mail cars. Then whiskey barrels and dry goods. Another car with stacks of pine wood crates. Each car stacked like the last, with only a narrow path through the middle, each man with a mask sidling through the crowded cars.
When they reached the last car, the caboose, with a small cot, wood panels and two small windows, they shoved around the leader and he spoke again.
“Where the hell is he? Where is Cash MacLeod?”
Then the first shot rang out. One man fell in the dim light. Then another shot and the man behind him fell with a groan, clutching his chest. The ten who were left panicked, yelling, turning to go back the way they came, but only one fitting through the narrow doorway and passageway at a time.
Truck Morrison stood on a small platform mounted behind the caboose, shooting through a small, square window in the rear doorway. He would kill three more men in the confined space of the train.
In the car connected to the caboose, John-bird silently emerged from behind the shadows and a stack of crates, killing three with his knife. They never even got off a shot.
Two more were dead before they made it to the coal car by Tam McGee, perched in a dark corner. He barely set down his bottle of rye, pulling his .44 from the holster and shooting from the hip.
The last two men — the leader, and a man broad in the shoulders right behind him — made it back to the cab of the train, where Rip Crowley and Jeremiah were waiting for them.
Confused, angry, scared, the bigger man made a clumsy move for his gun. Rip pulled fast and shot him in the chest. The big man flew back, out of the train and into the space between the engine and the coal car.
“I expect you’ll shoot me, too, then,” said the leader, pulling his dusty blue bandanna down off his face, careful to keep his left hand raised shoulder-high.
“Prefer not to. Would like to know who it was that sent you,” said Rip Crowley, leaning on the engineer’s seat.
The man didn’t move, and so Rip spoke again.
“Red Pelley. Been a long, long time since you robbed a train.”
Again, the man didn’t speak, just glared at Rip and kept his hands shoulder high.
“What I don’t reckon,” said Rip, “is you bein’ smart enough to know that Cash’s deed and the paper for his bank account was traveling with him. Someone did, though. Who was it, Red?”
Once again, the big man didn’t speak, just sniffed.
“Be easier if you tell me, Red.” But the men and the boy stood silently in the cab of the Great Northern, still crawling up the mountain.
“Well,” said Rip, after a time. “We’ll find out. One way or another.”
Then he turned his attention, just slightly, to Jeremiah.
“Son, we’ll need to slow her down even more, then stop her. Then we head back to get Mr. MacLeod and the train crew. Not too far back. You think you can find the brake and get us…”
Rip had turned enough to help his son begin to make sense of the levers and wheels and knobs and pedals.
That’s when Red Pelley made his move. He had a black .44 out and in his hand like lightning.
The shot rang out loud and hard and metallic in the small cab. And for a moment, everyone just tried to hear the sound of the roaring engine again, the sound of the squealing wheels on the metal rail.
Then, Red Pelley slowly dropped his gun.
Less than five feet away in the small cab stood Jeremiah Crowley with the smoking .38 in his hand.
Pelley grunted, slowly doubled over, and began to curse.
“You little sonofa…”
Rip cocked the .45.
“Daddy, no,” said Jeremiah. “You can’t kill him.”
“Why’s that, son?” Rip Crowley never took his eyes off Red Pelley, bleeding in the cab of the train.
“We need to know who sent him.”
“Who?” said Red Pelley through gritted teeth. He tried to laugh, then wince at the pain. “Well,” he said, “it’s good to have low friends in high places. Sorta like Cash MacLeod.”
He tried standing taller, winced, and doubled over again.
“This,” he hissed, waving his left arm. “This is what I do. It’s who I am. Maybe you two got me today, Sheriff. But there’ll be more. There’s always more. Just like me.” The man spit blood once more. “You can’t ever stop it. We’re coming for you.” The man, blinking, blood dripping from his nose, now, pointed to the boy. “We’re coming for you, boy. We’re coming!” He laughed a dark, ragged laugh. “No matter how hard you try! You can’t stop us!”
Red Pelley’s left hand flew back towards the Derringer tucked in his belt.
He didn’t let him get close.
The Colt .45 and the .38 rang out in the cab of the Great Northern, and Jeremiah Crowley wondered if he’d ever hear again.
Red Pelley was on the floor, two bullets in his gut and a bullet in his head.
Finally, the men of Rip Crowley’s posse came through to the cab and the engine room and stood over the bloody body of the outlaw Red Pelley.
“How we gonna know who they were working for, Rip?” asked Truck Morrison, scratching his head.
“I’ll find out,” said Rip, grabbing the red brake lever and pulling it. The train lurched. “And when we do, we’ll bring that sonofabitch to justice, too.”
The train screeched and squealed to a stop. Slowly, after a long moment, it began to move backwards, towards the tunnel in the mountain, back to pick up its crew, back to the body of Cash MacLeod, his deed to more land than any of them could fathom, and a will to the people of the town of Fox Osage.
# # # #
© 2019 by Benjamin J. Kirby
All rights reserved.