2nd Place
2019 Rope and Wire Western Short Story Contest


The Bastard of the Black Hills

Alfred Stifsim

Genie Oaks had to catch her breath. Loose curls of dark hair were stuck to her sweaty, grime covered face. It had taken all day to clean the stuffy backroom of her husband’s mining supply shop. Despite the baby that hung low inside her belly, she had taken to the task. Filled with mostly unopened crates layered with dust and mouse droppings, the room had long been neglected, though not due to any time her husband lacked. Two weeks had passed since their little shop in the Black Hills of eastern Wyoming had seen a customer, and the chore loomed as a boding reminder for Clarence Oaks that his business was failing.

Clarence spent more days with a bottle in his hand now than he did a ledger, and most of those days Genie knew that she was the only thing that kept the business or their marriage from falling apart. It was a burden that should have never fallen completely onto her, but she also bore her share of the blame. In the dim light she carefully pushed a crate against the wall and sat, brushing the stray hairs away from her face. She clutched at the back of her head, shook out the loosely tied bun then refashioned it, and laid a hand to her belly. The baby had been moving less. She knew it wouldn’t be long.

If only it was Clarence’s.

As soon as she began to show, Madam Bathe dismissed her. No man wanted to pay for a pregnant whore. All the other girls had urged her to get rid of it, for her sake and her husbands, but she just couldn’t bring herself to the act. Clarence knew the truth immediately. She was always careful when they were together, never allowing his manhood to spoil her. It didn’t matter how much he pleaded, she couldn’t take the risk. No man wanted to pay for a pregnant whore, but she got pregnant anyway.

While her husband never said anything outright, his actions tendered his resentment; the coldness where there used to be so much warmth. Pregnancy wasn’t a surprise in her line of work, but a serious marriage proposal was. The caramel completion she inherited from her black father and white mother made her one of Madam Bathe’s most sought-after girls. Like many of her regular customers, Clarence had been infatuated, but he was also persistent, more so than the rest. It was a full year before he had convinced her his feelings were true, and another before Bathe would allow for her to move out of the brothel and in with Clarence.

For a time, things were good and together they shared real happiness. The mining camp brimmed with traffic as prospectors and fortune seekers flocked to the pine covered hills to strike it rich. Business was steady as each of them supplied a service that was in demand.

That was before the mines dried up. Once there was no more gold to be dug from the ground, most of the claims were quickly abandoned.

Clarence remained optimistic, convinced it was only a minor setback and that another group of miners was bound to come through at any time. “Business will be back to normal,” he reassured her one night while she laid in his arms, “Soon as the next big strike comes.”

It never came, but men did. Men broken by their barren claims, ready to spend their last dollars on the comfort of a woman who could help them forget everything they had lost. And, while brand new sluice pans and pick axes remained untouched and on display behind the glass front of the supply store, Genie’s bed on the second floor of Madame Bathe’s was the only thing that brought them any income.

Until—

CRASH! The sound of glass breaking upon the ground at the front of the store signaled Clarence’s return.

“The damn fool,” Genie cursed into the stale air.

Her skin itched and her back ached. She couldn’t tell if it was a from cleaning or the pregnancy. Rising, she straightened the drab, oversized dress that hung like a curtain around her ankles and went to gather her husband.

Passed out on the floor in front of the store counter, Clarence laid face down in the broken pieces of a bottle. The pile of shovels he’d stumbled over was at his feet.

She was amazed none of his cuts were serious as she forced him to stand. “C’mon now!”

“Jus’ let me sleep,” he protested in a low moan as he tried to fall limp.

“No, I won’t see you like this,” Genie replied holding onto his shirt and using the counter for support. His body odor was a miasma of liquor and shit, “You need to stand. I can’t carry you and this baby.”

“Fine,” he said drunkenly and resentful, “You never had much room for me in there anyways.” Relieving her of his weight, he pulled away and stumbled to the stairs behind the counter. Leaning heavily on the wall, he went up to their apartment.

Alone once again, Genie fought back the tears that welled in her eyes as she swept up the broken glass. She peered out the front window, flurries blew across the porch. The fullness of winter would soon be upon them.

Clarence was sprawled over the bed loudly sucking air, boots still on. She stared over him wistfully. He had become a hollow man, but Genie was sure that she still loved him, or at least she thought she was sure most days.

The baby moved.

She would do everything possible to make things right once the child came. He would realize that it could be theirs.

Her voice struck a somber tone. “I’m sorry Clarence.”

* * *

“I’m sorry Clarence, she didn’t make it.”

The grim words of the doctor echoed through his mind along the screams of his wife as Clarence stared at the white shapes of ice that traveled along the top of the river. He expelled snot from his face onto the sleeve of his coat as thick wet snow fell upon him. Swaddled in his left arm, Clarence glanced away from the child’s face. He wouldn’t look at it. How could he? The bastard child just added to his humiliation. He had no wife, no money. He couldn’t care for it if he had wanted to.

“You’ve caused me nothing but misery!” He yelled to the tops of the pines as he held the baby out over the water, “I just want her back!”

On the verge of letting the child go, his hands shook, and he considered jumping in for himself.

The baby sobbed in the cold breeze. Clarence took a deep breath and looked down one last time into the child’s eyes. He couldn’t help it. They were Genie’s eyes.

His head and chest pounded at the realization of what he was about to do. Pulling the child back to him, he broke down.

“Don’ worry,” he cried, clutching it to his chest, “I’ll do what it takes to get us outta here. We’ll build a new home far from here. You and me.”

* * *

Clarence poured over the plan as he cleaned his pistol in the flicker of lantern light. In and out. He would be quick. Everything he needed had already been packed. The mule was ready out back. He would grab the child as soon as he returned, and they would leave the Black Hills behind them before anybody in the mining camp knew any different.

“You’re gonna have everything you’ll ever need. I’ll see to it.” he whispered to the baby as it slept soundly on the bed.

Kissing its forehead, Clarence rose to his feet, placed his dark green bowler hat onto his head then descended the stairs. He pulled his pocket watch from his coat. It was almost six o’ clock and the sun’s light had already begun to dive behind the hills. He had to hurry. What if Jonas decided to close early?

Jonas Shaver worked the only viable bank for miles. It stayed afloat by funding the corporate mining operations. Industrial mines required bigger equipment that allowed them to dig deep for large veins of gold, but they also cost more to bankroll. Jonas made out good inflating the rates and pocketing the extra cash. It wouldn’t hurt him if some of it went missing.

With an empty bag in hand, Clarencs stepped into the street. His heart sank as he strode past Madame Bathe’s. There was only a single light in one of the upstairs windows. Genie’s window.

The aroma of the trees traveled on the crisp air, and the whole camp was quieted by a heavy blanket of snow, the muffled crunch of Clarence’s steps the only presence in the street. There was a time when so many people lived there that he couldn’t recall what silence even sounded like. Now it brought an eerie nervousness to him as he climbed the steps of the bank. His heartrate beat fast but steady as he laid his hand on the door.

“Just in time,” Jonas greeted as he heard the door open. His back was to Clarence as he swept the floor in front of the barred teller booth. “Was about to close up.”

“Lucky timing, I suppose,” Clarence replied in a voice of forced calmness.

“Clarence didn’t realize that was you,” Jonas said turning to him, “Heard about your wife.”

“She deserved better,” he said through clenched teeth fighting back pain.

Realizing he’d spoken without tact, Jonas tried to amend his words. “Didn’t mean to bring up a sore subject. Just haven’t seen you in a while, wanted to express my condolences.”

“Need to make a withdraw.”

“Withdraw?” He questioned him with confusion, twisting his black mustache. “Thought you already closed out your account months ago?”

“Open the safe,” Clarence demanded as he drew his pistol.

“Hold on now!”

“OPEN IT!”

Jonas dropped the broom and raised his hands high in the air, but he didn’t move.

“If you don’t listen to me I swear to god I’ll put a warm hole in you!”

“Careful Clarence, I don’t wish to see you hung. This isn’t you.”

BANG! The barrel of Clarence’s pistol flashed as a bullet ripped into the roughly-hewn, cavetto molding of the back wall. “Don’t act like you know who I am!” He barked at Jonas.

“Whoa! Fine, fine. I don’t want trouble,” Jonas implored, “Promise not to shoot if I move?”

Clarence waved him on with the pistol. Jonas slowly began to lower his hands.

“Keep ‘em high till I get up close!”

Keeping his hands up, Jonas turned to the door of the teller booth and waited for Clarence’s word. Instead he felt the force of a steel gun barrel pressed into his back. When he didn’t move right away, Clarence pressed harder. “Alright, alright,” Jonas said dropping his hands.

“Slowly,” Clarence growled.

Jonas carefully slipped his right hand into his vest pocked and produced a set of keys. Unlocking the door, he grabbed the bars and swung it open.

“Wait,” Clarence commanded.

Jonas froze.

“You gotta gun back there.”

“A gun?” Jonas questioned, trying to play dumb.

“I’m not asking, I’m telling.”

He grew short in frustration. “You know I have one.”

“Tell me where it is so I can grab it.”

Jonas exhaled. “Under the counter, to the right.”

Keeping his pistol trained on the banker, Clarence shuffled around him and into the booth. He dropped the empty bag to the floor and didn’t take his eyes off Jonas. Feeling below the counter where he was told, his fingers wrapped around the stock of a sawed-off, double barrel shotgun.

Jonas scowled at him as he prudently unloaded the weapon, threw the cartridges across the room, and laid the empty shotgun on the counter.

“Get in here,” Clarence said, moving out of his way so he could access the safe sitting on the floor. There was enough room for a few people to comfortably fit in the space.

The safe was four feet high and solid black. Jonas entered and squatted low to the dial on the face of the large iron box, then paused. “I’ve forgotten the code.”

Clarence pulled back the hammer to his pistol and put it to Jonas’ head.

Jonas began to slowly turn the dial—Click.

“Hurry it up!” Clarence urged, nervously scratching at the side of his face. It was taking too long.

The handle of the safe made a satisfyingly mechanical noise as Jonas turned it, and Clarence’s began to feel a warmth grow inside him. The large door swung Clarence’s direction with Jonas crouched behind it. Clarence kicked the empty bag over to him, and one by one the banker dropped bound stacks of greenbacks inside.

“You know,” Jonas prodded him, “That bastard child could be mine for all I know.”

Struck with red hot with anger, Clarence exploded. “SHUT YOUR—”

Jonas pulled a pistol hidden in the safe and fired a shot into Clarence’s left shoulder. Wide eyed in surprise, Clarence fired back in return but missed. The bullet ricocheted off the door of the safe, striking him in the right foot. He didn’t have time to register the pain.

The banker jumped up to fire again, but Clarence was too quick. He thrust into the door of the safe, knocking Jonas over; aimed and pulled the trigger—Click.

Jonas laid motionless for a moment, arms crossed over his face, waiting for his end. When he heard the firing-pin strike an empty chamber, he opened his eyes and looked to put his assailant down for good. He took aim.

Out of desperation, Clarence grabbed the shotgun and struck him across the head before he could fire.

Jonas went limp. Clarence quickly grabbed what he could, put in the bag and made his way out of the building. As the adrenaline wore off every step of his right foot burned. Hobbling as fast as he could, the pine covered hills had succumbed to darkness.

He slammed the door of the supply shop shut and immediately took to the stairs. The baby still slept there as if he had never left. Clarence removed his shirt and tore a piece of it off. This he tightly wrapped around the wound in his shoulder. Too afraid to remove his boot, he frantically tied another piece around his foot. Blood had trailed him all they way from the bank, spilling out with each step and leaving a red trail in the snow. There wasn’t much time to escape. He donned and new shirt and grabbed the child.

The mule already saddled, Clarence laid the baby in the hay of the little stable while he tied the bag of cash to the saddlebags. The sudden shuffle of feet sounded through the snow behind him.

“I was worried you’d pull something like this,” Marshal Garrett Clayborne said in a saddened voice. His gun was drawn and trained on Clarence.

Clarence stopped what he was doing and turned to face him. “Already suspected me then.” All emotion had gone from his face.

“I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to it, but a distraught man is liable to do strange things…out of character things.”

“Jonas dead?” Clarence inquired.

“Naw, gonna have a mighty headache, but he’ll be just fine.”

Clarence was relieved. He never intended to hurt him. If Jonas had just done what he was told he was only going to tie him up in the end. Turning back to the mule, he continued to secure the bag.

“Marshal, I don’t wanna have to hurt you too.” Facing him again, he grabbed his pistol.

“Now Clarence yer not right, don’t be a hard case.” the marshal pleaded with him, “I know yer wife just died and I’m willing to look past this if you just put the gun down.”

“You don’t know what I’ been through!” Clarence yelled, his pistol shaking in his hand.

“Think about that child ‘fore you do anything brash.”

“It’s the only thing I’m thinking about!” Raising the pistol, he stared down the barrel as the marshal fired, and felt a calmness as the bullet went deep into his chest. As he laid on the cold, snowy ground, in his last moments he saw Genie’s face leaning over him. Closing his eyes, he knew he would be with her again…

“Didn’t have to be this way,” the marshal spoke with sadness as he crouched over Clarence’s lifeless body.

Wailing from the loud gunshot, the baby cried out as it laid in the hay. Carefully, the marshal walked over and took it in his arms. “I’ll make sure to find you a good home.”

As Marshal Clayborne walked around to the front of the store, a horse thundered into the camp. The rider was ecstatic with news.

“There’s a new strike! Tom Watson found gold in the southern hills!”

The End.



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