Western Short Story
--- 1 ---
Erik Donald France rode into Little Rock, Arkansas bearing evidence of death in his saddlebags. The town was burgeoning, filled with energy and bustle in this Year of the Lord, 1875. More than twelve thousand people lived within the city limits. It seemed like all of them were on the streets. Erik had to ask directions to the house of Megan Toombs, where he was to deliver a message and a memento.
He found Megan rocking on her front porch, fanning herself against the oppressive heat of late July. She seemed pretty at a distance but when he dismounted at the yard gate and started up the walk to the woman’s house, her face came into focus. It was a hard face, cold and brittle as porcelain. If there was pretty here, it was buried deep.
“Mrs. Toombs,” Erik said, doffing his floppy felt hat.
“It’s Miss,” the woman said. “I claim no man.”
Her voice was hoarse, making Erik think of Blue Jays scolding. “Right,” he said. “Miss!”
“What do you want?”
Erik patted the saddlebag he’d carried up the walk with him. “Got something for you, something I believe you’ve been hoping to get hold of.”
Megan Toombs stopped rocking. Her brown eyes darkened. “Don’t see how that could be,” she said. “Ain’t no head in that saddlebag.”
Struck by the vehemence in the woman’s words, Erik hesitated for a moment before responding. “No, no head. Something smaller but surely just as good for your purposes.”
“Reckon I’ll be the judge of that,” she said, but she was leaning forward in her chair now, beckoning for him to approach with a long-fingered hand.
Erik stepped onto the porch, reached in the saddlebags and drew out a cloth wrapped package. He pulled the corners of the cloth back to reveal a small wooden frame across which a piece of tanned leather stretched. The piece was irregular in size, maybe six inches at its longest and three across. It was so thin that the sun shone through it, turning it copper in the light and revealing a jagged scar across it that was shaped like a rough X.
Megan Toombs sucked in a deep breath. Her eyes leaped with sudden life. She reached for the frame with trembling hands and Erik let her take it. She drew it close, examining it from every angle. An ugly and gleeful smile spread slowly across her features.
“That’s it!” she said. “That’s it! For sure.”
Megan lowered the flap of leather into her lap and leaned back in her chair. Her eyes grew suddenly shrewd.
“The reward was for his head,” she said. “This ain’t a head.”
Erik nodded, then raised a hand to indicate the summer day. “Had to bring it a long way in this heat. Wasn’t gonna lug a whole head that distance. Not with the way it’d start to smell.”
Megan sucked spit between her teeth. “S’pose that makes sense. Did he suffer?”
“A mite. Didn’t have a lot of time to spend on it, though.”
“Damn!” the woman blurted. “Shoulda made him hurt bad.” She held up the flap of tanned skin. “Shoulda taken’ this offen him while he was awake and screamin’.”
“You hate pretty well, Miss Toombs,” Erik said.
“Got my reasons. Bastard murdered my daughter.”
“S’pose you’ll be wantin’ your reward now.”
Erik nodded. “Why I came.”
“I never spoke to ya about it. How’d you hear?”
Erik had expected this question. He had an answer. “Ran into a feller down in Texarkana. Named Oliver. Seems like he had the word from you. But he wasn’t having any luck. Thought I might do better.”
Megan Toombs nodded. “Yep. I know ‘im. Wait here!”
The woman rose and went inside the house, carrying the scarred piece of leather with her. Erik was glad to see it gone. He stood in the heat, sweating in his buckskins while cicadas droned. Toombs came back with a rectangle of paper in her hand. She passed it to him.
“Draft on my bank for a thousand dollars,” she said. “First State Bank. Down on the main street. Show the manager that paper. He’ll get your money.”
“Supposed to be fifteen hundred,” Erik said.
“For the head,” Megan Toombs replied. “You didn’t bring me no head.”
Erik let out a breath. He nodded slowly, then turned away without a word. Tossing the empty saddlebag over his horse, he mounted and rode off, never looking back.
--- 2 ---
Two weeks later, Erik France rode into the town of Liberty, Arkansas, a good two hundred miles north of Little Rock. Liberty was a small town set amid the forested hills of the Ozark Mountains. Maybe three hundred folks lived there, with another thousand or so in the surrounding valleys.
Red Amos’s Grande saloon was the only action in town. Erik tied his horse in front of it and stepped through the door into a shadowy interior filled with the smells of sawdust, leather and liquor. Only three customers wiled away the afternoon. Eric had only seen one of them before—Clayton Toombs.
Clayton, a big fellow with a peppering of gray in his hair, sat at a table against the back wall of the saloon, nursing occasionally from a bottle of whiskey. The left side of his face was heavily bandaged. Erik approached and slid down into the chair across the table from him.
Grateful for the relative coolness of the saloon against the heat outside, Eric merely sat quietly and enjoyed. The other man acknowledged his presence by pushing the bottle and an unused glass toward him. Erik poured himself a generous swallow of the amber liquor, belted it back, then poured another for sipping.
“It’s done,” Erik said, edging the bottle back toward its owner.
“She bought it?”
“Seems so. She gave me the money. Shorted me five hundred but I didn’t feel like arguing.”
The man nodded. “Wouldn’t have won anyway.”
“What I figure,” Erik said, sipping his whiskey.
Toombs took a slug from the liquor bottle, then reached into the pocket of his faded blue shirt and drew out some folded bills. He tossed these onto the table in front of Erik, who watched them flutter down like wounded birds.
“You already paid me five hundred,” Erik said.
“I know,” Toombs replied. “But you should a got two thousand for the deal.” He nodded toward the money. “There’s only about three hundred there. Not enough to cancel your shortfall. But it’s what I’ve got.”
“I’ll take something else to make up the difference,” Erik said quietly.
Toombs’ eyes were a dark, dark blue against the paleness of the bandage on his face. He sat his whiskey down, let his empty hand rest on the corner of the table. “And what would that be?” he asked, his voice soft and dangerous.
“You hired me to make a delivery, to make a woman who I imagine must be your wife believe you were dead. She mentioned something about a murdered daughter. So now I want to know the why of it all.”
“Not something I like to talk about.”
“I understand,” Erik said. “But that’s my price.”
The man nodded, considered for a bit, then spoke: “You guessed it. Megan Toombs is my wife. Was my wife. What’s more, we once had a child.”
--- 3 ---
“Three years ago,” Toombs continued. “Megan and I were living in Little Rock. I won’t say we were all that happy with each other, but we were happy with Amy, our daughter. She was six. I took Amy fishing a lot. Along the Arkansas River. We always had a good time. She was so…alive. She always wanted to help with the fish. Sometimes I let her hold the pole. With me right there beside her. I helped her hook a few perch. She’d bring them in and be so excited. So…proud.”
Toombs’ voice wavered. He took a sip of whiskey to fortify himself, then continued. Erik listened without a sound.
“This one day. I had to…take nature’s call. I let Amy hold the fishing pole while I went into some bushes. I told her to hold on tight. Not to drop it. She called out while I was in the bushes. Said we were getting a bite.”
Toombs choked up and said nothing for a long moment. Erik almost told him to ‘let it go,’ but he sensed that the man needed to tell it, that he’d told it to himself enough and needed to say it out loud at least once.
“Go on,” Erik urged.
“I told her I’d be right there, o hold on tight to the pole. Don’t let go!” I said.
“I finished and started toward her. She smiled at me. She said, ‘I’ve got it, Daddy. I won’t let go.’ And then…. There are some huge catfish in that river. Two, three hundred pounds. You don’t hook ‘em very often but I’ve seen big men strain to hold them. It must have been one of those that took our bait. Amy was only six. Just a bitty thing. It…. It jerked her right off the bank into the river. She didn’t let go. Just like I’d told her.
“She didn’t even scream. But I saw her go under. I ran, as fast as I could. I was yelling at her now to ‘let go, let go!’ I don’t know if she heard. But it didn’t matter. I dove in, dove and dove and dove.”
The pitch of Toombs’ voice grew higher now. Everyone in the bar turned to look. Erik sat mesmerized as he watched this big man come apart. He wanted to take back his request; he wanted to be anywhere but where he was right now.
“It was so dark under the water,” Toombs said. “The Arkansas is muddy. I felt…pressure waves. From movement. Something big thrashing. But I couldn’t see anything. I hit the bottom. I had to breathe. God help me, I had to breathe. I came up. Other folks were fishing too. They came running. Some men dove in. They came back up again. Without Amy.
“I was screaming for her. I stood up. So I could see if her head would surface. Then I started running along the bank. Running back and forth. I dove in a couple more times. I don’t know how long it was before men took me by the arms and dragged me back up on shore. She never came up. She never came up. She…never…came…up.”
Near silence fell. Erik heard nothing more than Clayton Toombs’ hard breathing and the sound of flies buzzing. Toombs’ hands were twisting together and finally he pulled them apart and took a sip of whiskey. He seemed like a man who had just vomited sickness out of his belly and felt a little better for it. Erik thought maybe it was just that way. But he also knew the story wasn’t quite over. He waited, and after a bit:
“People took me home,” Toombs continued. “Megan had already heard about an ‘accident.’ She was waiting on the porch. I told her what had happened. She started hitting me, screaming that I was a murderer. Some folks pulled her off me. They told her the same thing I did about what happened. She went in the house, to the kitchen. I followed her in, trying to explain. Trying to…justify.
“She came at me with a knife, gave me,” he reached up, brushed the outside of his facial bandage with his left hand, “the scar. I didn’t fight her. But people heard her screaming. They pulled her off me again.
“Someone took me to the Sheriff’s office. I spent the night in jail. But not with the cell locked. Everyone knew it was an accident. Except Megan. She sent a note the next morning, saying if I came home she’d kill me.
“I left town. But that wasn’t enough for her. Some guy came to kill me a few months later. I killed him instead, but he managed to tell me he’d been promised five hundred dollars for my head. Two more came over the next couple of years. Each time, the amount they’d been promised was higher. Last one was the feller named Oliver I told you about. He changed his mind when he braced me. I think he knew he was gonna die. That was in Texarkana. He rode south from there. Said he might go to Mexico. I knew Megan wasn’t going to stop, though. She’d send more men. And I’d either have to kill ‘em or die.”
“So,” Erik said. “That’s when you hired me. To fake your death.”
“Yes. I thought…maybe it would give her the end she wanted. Help her…move on.”
“What about you?” Erik asked.
Clayton Toombs waved his hand toward the outside world. “I’ll stay here. Not in Liberty directly. But I grew up in the Ozark Mountains. Still got kin around. I’ll keep away from towns. Lots of folks disappear in those hollows. Maybe Megan can find a little happiness on her own.”
Erik France didn’t think there was anything in the world that would make Megan Toombs happy for long. But he didn’t say it. Instead, he added, “Judging from her speech, I’d say she was from mountain folks too. She got any family around here? What if she hears about you? Or comes to visit?”
“She grew up in the same hollows I did,” Clayton agreed. “But she won’t come back here. The Ozarks got no welcome for Megan Toombs anymore. Or, I should say, not for Megan Grainger.”
“Ah,” Erik said. “I’ve heard about the Grainger-Boyd feud. Bloody, I’m told.”
“Boyds nearly wiped them out. Few that lived headed west. Megan married me but we had to get out of the mountains. That’s why we were in Little Rock. The Boyds were hurt bad too. Only a few of them were left but the Toombs are kin of the Boyds. And we came in on their side at the end. I’m accepted back here. Alone. Not Megan.”
Eric didn’t see any need to say more. He finished his drink and rose to leave.
“Take your money,” Clayton said, gesturing toward the bills on the table. “You earned it. And if you get back this way, look me up. I’ll give you the rest of what you got comin’.”
Erik shook his head. “Been paid enough. And I don’t reckon I’ll ever be coming back this way.”
He went straight to his horse and rode until he’d left the dust of Arkansas far behind.