“You forgot one, boy.”
“Chair, over yonder. In the corner collecting shadow creatures and what have you.”
Junior saw the loner chair, hiding in the corner by the front window, and he skipped over to grab it.
Someone must’ve put it there for the lovely view of misery. A deserted town that had once tried to be more but fell a little short. Okay, a lot short. One could look out the window of Morris’ Saloon and see the three other rotted cob-webbed buildings of Nothingville, USA.
Morris prayed to God every evening to reach His big hand out of the clouds and grab him and his boy and take them somewhere where they could live in peace and happiness. But life choices led him to hide in the middle of nowhere, stuck between the jagged terrains of the tallest mountains in the southwest. The Saloon had occasional patrons, no doubt about that, but the same crop of hard men that he was already acquainted with. Some would ride all day just for the booze or the stories from the retired gunslinger. But most days it was just Morris and his boy.
“Someone’s coming, Pa,” Junior said as he grabbed the chair from the corner, dragging it to one of the four tables. “No horse.”
This time of night? On foot? Here? In the butthole of the world?
Someone coming when it was dark was unusual. On foot was downright insane. That someone would have to be settling up for the night, hoping to sleep alongside Morris and his boy in the shack out back. And that someone would be outside of his mind to think that.
“Come around here, son.”
“One of your old rivals?” the boy asked.
“Your dad’s rivals are long gone, Junior.”
“And dead men don’t walk,” his son recited, almost as if he’d heard it before.
That brought a slight smirk to Morris’ face and when the boy came around the counter with him, he gave his hair a good ruffling.
Maybe someone hoping to make a name for themselves by taking him out, Morris thought. Some poor chap hoping to get famous quick. A fogy feller thinking that retired meant incompetent. Morris went from one side of the counter to the other, where his rifle hung underneath. From here, he could point it at anyone he didn’t like, anywhere in the saloon. He grabbed the stock, his finger scratching near the trigger.
The man busted into the saloon, a cloud of dust trailing him like he’d been rolling around in the sand out there. He was breathing fast, and pacing with more energy than he should’ve had, being out here in the hub of nowhere, this time of night.
“Just closing up, sir,” Morris told the young man.
“Help!” he gasped between breaths. “Help me. I need help. Th-the-there’s something out there.”
Morris took his finger away from the trigger, retracted his hand from the stock and put both palms on the counter. Harmless looking feller seemed as misplaced in the world as Morris was in his own mind. He couldn’t see any weapons on the stranger, just a dirty shirt under a dirty coat with dirty britches and boots that looked like they’d been through hell. He held a brown sack in his right hand that seemed to be weighing the skinny man to the side. “What’s out there, friend? Besides dirt and darkness.”
The traffic in the Morris Saloon was an unofficial exclusive club. Men and sometimes women that Morris knew from his old life. He’d never seen this man before. Figured he got lost, his horse got dead, and he found the bar. Or, this stranger was crazier than a headless goat.
“Monster out there,” the man claimed. “A fucking monster.”
“Ah—ah!” The boy scrambled around the corner and pointed to a shelf with a clear jar sitting on it, labeled ‘swear box’. “You owe me,” the little whippersnapper claimed.
“Sorry,” the stranger hobbled to the bar counter, looking at the wall.
“No profanity in the saloon.” Junior crossed his arms over his chest.
The man smirked at the young boy and sat in one of the stools. “Just a drink then, and I’ll be on my way.” He looked up at Morris.
“Pay the boy, first. Rules is rules.” Morris looked down at his son, who stood firm in his stance, tightening his arms across his body, lifting his chin up.
The stranger glanced at the box, then plopped his bag on the counter and it clinked. Morris recognized that sound, the shape of the bag and assumed its contents. He suspected this man meant trouble. Or if he wasn’t, trouble was coming. He reached into the bag, shielding the inside from Morris’ view and pulled out a gold coin. Showcasing it, smiling, the look in his eyes showed a man proud of what he’d been through, despite some tales of monsters. “I reckon this should cover that swear cup over there and a lifetime of drinks. Yeah?” He placed it on the counter and pushed it forward.
Morris just stared at it. Didn’t budge or reach for it. Didn’t plan on it, either.
“We can’t change that.” Junior in all his innocent ignorance reached for the coin. Morris grabbed his wrist before he touched it. “Finish your cleaning.”
The boy snatched his hand back and eyed the stranger, then stomped away, grabbed a rag and went to clean tables. “Wiping old dust to make room for better dust,” Junior muttered.
Morris shook his head as he poured the stranger a shot a whiskey.
“Snappy little thing, that boy of yours.” The stranger grabbed the glass and dispensed the liquor down his throat. Slamming the glass, the man pointed from the cup to the bottle. “Keep em coming, friend.”
As good a time as any to remind the stranger of closing time, but then another man entered the saloon. He didn’t have to tell his boy to come around the corner, Junior rushed back to him all on his own. A tall, dark, rugged man, dressed for the weather and trek, a visible gun on his hip. He stood in the doorway, taking stock of the establishment. Morris saw a horse outside through the window. Unlike the first stranger, this man didn’t look lost.
The skinny man at the bar barely glanced over his shoulder before turning back to the front, grabbing his sack of coins, and placing it in his lap, shielding it best he could with his coat. For all he knew, this was the normal in Morris’ Saloon. Strange men showing up randomly after the sun dropped.
“Closed for the evening,” Morris announced.
The second man didn’t respond, just helped himself to a chair by the door. The metal on his hip clinked as he walked over. A clacking sound came from his boots as he ambled over the wooden floorboards. He even sat loudly, sighing as he dropped into the chair. Grabbing a cigar from his front shirt pocket, his gaze went to the stranger at the bar.
Morris knew that look all too well. A look that meant danger. He moved out of the way and shielded his boy from the line of fire that was sure to come. A stranger in Morris’ Saloon in the middle of fuck, after godly hours? Rare. But two strangers? Impossible.
This was no regular evening. This had to be about that sack there. And Morris was good not to touch that coin on the counter.
The stranger looked at the empty cup, waiting perhaps for his second shot. “Craziest thing I ever saw, that monster out there. Up in the mountains.” He grabbed the cup, and started fiddling with it, completely oblivious to the man sitting behind him. “I know bears, I know wolves, but this was something different, I tell you. Something different altogether. Barely got out of there with my life. Damn horse started to slow me down. Guessing after I put Bessie out of her misery, she became food and slowed it down, I don’t know. I don’t know—hey, sir, another one.” He raised the cup.
“Like I said before, friend. It’s time to go.” Morris pointed to the door.
“Okay, okay, big guy.” He stood and pointed to the coin on the counter. “You save that, you hear? I’ll be back for my second drink.”
The stranger had a complete change of attitude than when he had entered. Morris noticed how he stood with his chin up and his chest out. With as much confidence as a wolf walking through a deer region. Clutching that sack tightly to his hip as if it were an extra limb. That moment lasted a second because as soon as he turned around, a bullet entered his skull. The sack dropped quicker than the body.
Rich in his last moments, poor for eternity.
Morris didn’t blink an eye. Saw it coming from the moment the tall man walked into his saloon. The pull of the gun, the quickness of the trigger, the man reminded him of himself. Junior, brave boy, stayed close to him, but didn’t yelp, didn’t flinch, as if it were a normal thing. He hadn’t been around violence much, but he’d heard plenty of stories about his father’s encounters.
“Sorry for the mess,” the man tipped his hat to Morris and his son, then stashed the weapon in his holster. “This man is a wanted outlaw and I come to bring him in, dead or alive,” he announced as if he were a law man. But Morris didn’t see a badge and he knew all the sheriff’s men. The old man had always traveled with a gang every time he came to the Saloon. This man, was not one of them.
No matter if he knew him or not, he didn’t have quarrels with this tall…gunslinger. Yeah, gunslinger, the professional kind. Going from town to town, looking for fights, picking fights, when jobs were scarce. Morris knew the type. Hell, he was the type.
With that deliberate hard walk, from the front of the place to the counter where the blood was staining the floors, the man looked at the gold coin on the counter, and his eyes lit up like a full moon. Then, his gaze dropped to the man and he picked up the sack that lay next to him. When he opened it, his eyes just about left his body. “I-I-I’ll be back for the body,” he twisted the top of the sack closed and stuffed it in the side of his britches. He had to hold it against himself to keep it from falling.
As he stood to leave the saloon, the thundering noise of a herd of horses echoed in the air. Hoofing and neighing with shouts of direction from a few men, dust rolling in over the windows on either side of the door. Day or night, the saloon had never been as busy as it was now. The sound stopped the gunslinger in his tracks. And he took a step back toward the body.
Next, men stormed the saloon. Men Morris knew; the Sheriff and three of his deputies. Likely there were more outside. When coming this far outside of town, the Sheriff always came with a posse.
The Sheriff had decades on everyone in the room, well past his days in the field, but the power over people became his drug. As a retired gunslinger, a saloon owner and a wanted criminal in four states as far as he knew, the Sheriff had given Morris refuge here in the mountains. In this God-forsaken deserted town that never had a name. A place where men could come and drink and bring their women for fun. A place of illegal activity where the Sheriff could unwind and be his true corrupt self because he had a moral reputation to uphold in the town he ran. Ironically, Morris was a good man now. And he was raising Junior in the same light. Whatever evils he’d done in the past, he’d make up for in the future. A process he was still trying to figure out. The Sheriff and his bad apples stood in his way, but at the same time, kept him surviving with their silence and money. He didn’t want to survive anymore; he’d done plenty of that in his dangerous days. Morris wanted to live.
“Evening,” the Sheriff tipped his hat to Morris and the boy behind the counter before focusing his attention on the gunslinger.
“Howdy, Sheriff. Got your man right here.” The gunslinger pointed to the dead stranger, standing crookedly.
Two of the three deputies split off from the front, and they walked up and stopped on either side of the gunslinger.
Surrounded now, the man looked from side to side, taking another step back. If he were smart, he’d have another.
“Good, good, good,” Sheriff replied. Then, he took a step, just a step, and peeked over at the counter where that single gold coin lay. Nodding and smiling. Then he surveyed the body. “Imagine it was an easy kill for ya. Cooper was never a good gunner.”
“Pot shot,” the gunslinger replied. His tone softened, the tension in his stance breaking. “This one’s on the house, Sheriff. No need for a reward. It was good practice.”
“Yup. I’ll just, uhh, be on my way.” The gunslinger wobbled toward the door, as the Sheriff walked to the counter, passing each other. The old man looked at the body some more as he got closer, then looked at the coin on the counter, then at Morris and the boy. “Just one more thing.”
The gunslinger stopped at the door, facing the single deputy that stood in his way.
“He have anything on him? Papers, tobacco, cash? Gold?”
The gunslinger straightened, lifted his head and that hand…Morris paid close attention to that right hand hovering over his holster. In seconds, the gunslinger pulled his gun, and disarmed the deputy guarding the door. He turned and aimed at the sheriff with one gun, and he used the unarmed deputy as a shield, pressing the second gun in his neck. The other two on either side of the room pulled their weapons out and aimed. Average shooters, Morris guessed, by the way they handled the guns. In all of this, the sack fell to the floor, clinking near the gunslinger’s feet.
The Sheriff shook his head, and smacked his teeth.
“Let me walk out of here, Sheriff, and no one’ll get dead,” the gunslinger said. “You got your boy right there under ya. Keep your reward and I’ll be on my way.”
“And what’s that there?” the Sheriff pointed at the sack.
“Just some snacks. For my horse.”
The Sheriff laughed, then looked at the two deputies on his side, who forced their laughter.
“Don’t see how you plan on walking out of this town, friend. You may get us,” the Sheriff raised his arms and walked forward, “but I got a dozen men out there.” His deputies inching closer as well. “You’re good. I’ll give you that, but not that good.”
“Let me be, Sheriff,” The gunslinger talked like he wanted to live but looked as if he weren’t afraid to die. Either the will to live, ego, or overconfidence in his skill forced him to take his next action.
The deputies went first; the one by the door, got a bullet to his neck. As he dropped, the two others received bullets to the head. Poor bastards couldn’t even get a shot off.
And that gunslinger, as good as the Sheriff had claimed seconds before, wasn’t fast enough to get to him. A bullet pierced the gunslinger’s skull, entering right between the eyes and he fell back, and thumped hard on the wood floor like a sack of potatoes.
Wasn’t the Sheriff, but he looked back as if he knew. Morris, held a smoking pistol in his hand, temporarily out of retirement.
The dozen men stormed the saloon with guns drawn, aimed at Morris, who still stood with the pistol drawn.
“Hold on. Hold on,” the Sheriff stopped them from killing his savior. “You slow sons a’ bitches, Morris here saved my life. Now put ’em down.”
Morris could take them if he had to. All twelve of them, thirteen counting the Sheriff. Wasn’t a will to live or ego on his part, just fact.
They lowered their weapons, and Morris lowered his. The men, some deputies, most just regular town folk who worshipped the Sheriff as if he were a king, looked around at the massacre before them. As the men crowded the doorway, some stepping on the gunslinger, trying to squeeze in to see what was happening, the horses outside neighed.
“Get out there and tend to them ’fore they get loose and lost.”
The twelve deputies exited, leaving the Sheriff in there with Morris and his boy.
The old man turned to Morris with a slick smile, as if he owned him. Like, Morris treated him the same as the rest of the clowns from town. He dealt with the Sheriff only to keep the world off his trail. “I see you hadn’t forgotten our deal.”
Morris clicked his teeth and stashed the gun in his hip. He, then, turned away to grab a rag to wipe the long bar counter from the blood splatter.
As the horses continued their whiney racket that increased by the second, the Sheriff ignored it and reached into the stranger’s pockets. Empty. “What happened ’fore I got here, Morris?” He then walked over to the dead gunslinger by the door and checked his pockets. Also, empty. But he grabbed the sack from the ground. “Whoa nelly!” he said, laughing, struggling to stand with it. He walked back to the counter, holding the sack like a baby, smiling as if he already knew the contents.
As the Sheriff plopped it on the wooden counter, it clanked and boomed across the saloon. He sat on the stool and opened the sack. That smile on the Sheriff’s face turned to awe. The horses outside were screaming at this point. “Goddamn fucking beasts. Shut them the hell up,” the Sheriff screamed over his shoulder.
Junior cleared his throat.
The Sheriff looked at him, then the swear box on the wall. “Ah, yes, yes. The jar.”
He reached in and pulled out a coin from the sack, thinking. Then, he grabbed a money clip from his pocket and tossed it to the young man. “For a lifetime pass of fucks.” Junior caught it and ran away with it. Grinning and counting it.
The Sheriff kissed the coin he pulled out, “This be my retirement, Morris. Might even buy this shitty town and turn it into something. You’d like that, would—” he noticed the single coin from before. The loner…the gift from the stranger, resting on the counter. He put the other coin back and reached for it.
“Sir,” one of the men entered the saloon, nearly tripped over the gunslinger before catching himself.
The Sheriff pulled his hand back from the coin and turned. Angrily. Hiding the sack in his lap. “I told you to wait outside.”
“Sir, something’s got the horses riled up.”
“I can hear that.”
“Two of them already ran off.”
“Cuz the moon’s gone and we’re in the middle of nowhere, don’t you see. Now, get out there and feed ’em some crackers and take a bottle of booze with you to settle ’em down. I’m sure Morris won’t mind.” The Sheriff looked back at Morris who nodded.
Then, the horses stopped crying, but that awful noise from the animals was replaced by the rest of the men outside. They were arguing or discussing something in a distressed manner.
Before the other deputy or the Sheriff could investigate, gunfire erupted. They each pulled their sidearms. The sheriff stood, holding that sack close to his body. Morris and his boy remained behind the counter.
A minute later, once the gunfire ceased, something out there roared, louder than any bear. The saloon shook, the windows rattled, Morris’ heart jumped. He’d been truly scared only two times in his entire life; when he killed his first man at the age of ten and when his wife died in childbirth. This horrible sound had him thinking of the stranger and his talk about a monster in the mountains. He snatched the rifle from its resting place under the counter.
“What in the blazes?” The Sheriff spoke for everyone.
Outside, the men started shouting. Perhaps, they could answer that question.
Then came another roar from whatever the hell that was, and the windows on each side of the door lit up. A blaze that blanketed the view.
Morris stuck his boy under the counter to hide as curiosity pulled him from around the safest spot in the place, rifle in hand. The saloon didn’t catch the fire, but the other buildings in the town did. And the men outside, the deputies, were on fire too. Running wild.
“Get out there,” the Sheriff ordered the last deputy.
The man turned and shook his head. “No way in hell.”
The Sheriff pointed his gun at him and said, “Either you fight out there or you die in here.”
Processing the decision, or still disobeying his boss, the man stood there. Biding his time. His last moments in the world. Poor son of a bitch. His choices were die out there or die in here. Die by fire or die by bullet.
The front of the saloon creaked and cracked. In seconds, the roof was torn off like a tornado had touched down. But it wasn’t wild winds that caused this fire and destruction – it was a hand, a claw. With fingernails as tall as Morris and razer sharp nails as long as Junior. The deputy and Sheriff shot their pistols at the thing as if their guns were superior than the weapons wielded by their burned compatriots outside. After the roof was snatched off, the front of the building was next. It tore away from the building much like Morris used to snatch wanted posters of himself from posts. And with the front wall and door and windows being ripped away, the deputy went with it, screaming and shooting, until he was pulled so far into the darkness, the sounds of his cries and gunfire faded.
After the fire settled into ash and smoke, once the Sheriff tucked that sack under his arm and readied himself for an escape, the source of the fire and giant claws returned.
A head as big as the saloon – a pointy head, with a mouth and snout reaching out, opening up to razor sharp teeth that would pierce a man harder than any bullet could. It looked like a lizard, a giant lizard, until Morris saw the rest of it. A hollow chest with orange light beaming and glowing up toward the neck. A scaly body too dark to tell its color, but bright enough to see that it was just as the stranger had said. A monster.
Perhaps the same curiosity that pulled Morris to the window, grabbed hold of the Sheriff and forced him to the edge of the Saloon. The Sheriff and the creature made eye contact, staring each other down. Somehow Morris knew that sack had something to do with that thing. And that thing was going to—
The orange in its throat lit up, and fire blew from its mouth and burned the Sheriff where he stood. Morris was smart enough not to fire a shot, quick enough to rush back behind the counter with his boy. The fire reduced the old corrupt Sheriff to ash. The sack burned as well and all the gold coins that filled it, fell into the ash pile. Amongst the coins was an egg. A golden egg.
Morris crouched down, gawking, as his boy grabbed onto his torso. There was no point in running from the giant fire-throwing beast. They wouldn’t make it half-a-mile. Hell, they wouldn’t make it to their shack. And if they did, bye-bye, shack. The monster leaned its head into the roofless saloon and Morris, grabbing his boy, stumbled backwards against the door that led to the back. It looked at the father and son. The breath of the beast was so strong that it felt like a windy day inside the bar. It sniffed them, then stared at the single coin on the counter that Morris and his boy hadn’t touched.
Morris didn’t know what this beast was. Didn’t even want to guess. But somehow, he knew that the monster was going to let them live. And let them keep the coin. The monster did as much, nodding its head at the coin before retreating from the counter.
It took the golden egg in its mouth and returned to the mountains with a light, soothing screech.
Ten minutes later, once the sound of the beast was gone, and the fire had settled down, Morris walked over and looked at his broken saloon. Devastation hit him until he grabbed the coin left on the counter by the stranger. From the sky that sprawled above where his ceiling used to be, to the smoke in the street ahead that replaced his front wall, door and windows, the saloon was done. Then his gaze went to the sheriff’s remains and the hundreds of gold coins left by the generous monster.
Morris looked to the heavens and spat. Then he marched over to the coins, knelt down and grabbed as many as he could in his palms. Years of ignored prayers, answered by a monster. “No God here. Only Fire and Gold.”
© 2021 M. Sydnor Jr.