Now and again, the Goodreads group “Sup­port for Indie Authors” pro­vides a prompt that mem­bers can use as inspi­ra­tion for a short sto­ry. This one made me smile:

It’s a very well kept secret that before San­ta and Mrs. Claus took up res­i­dence in the North Pole and start­ed spy­ing on chil­dren all across the globe they first met in a dusty old saloon way back dur­ing the Gold Rush. How­ev­er, the details about this very first meet­ing and sub­se­quent part­ner­ship are sketchy at best.”

Some folks said it was Sher­iff Noel who final­ly end­ed Lit­tle Asa in Roja Verde, way back when. That Asa was men­ac­ing patrons in my saloon, threat­en­ing them with that old pig stick­er of his, when Sher­iff Noel shot him dead. Some said Asa had threat­ened to kill the Rev­erend Barnes. Oth­ers said he’d just killed a woman who’d spurned him, a woman whose name they couldn’t quite recall. Still oth­ers said he’d just killed me.

Some folks say fool­ish things.

It was so long ago. I don’t recall the year, or even the month, but I know it was a Fri­day. Fri­day was always a bit of a to-do at the Pick­led Crow. Those few who drew a cash-mon­ey salary from their work vis­it­ed the Crow to spend it. Those who worked for them­selves chose Fri­day to cel­e­brate mak­ing it through anoth­er week. Those who saw mon­ey rarely or not at all—prospectors, beg­gars, thieves—stopped by to see what they could get away with. Not much else to do on a Fri­day night in Roja Verde, real­ly. Vis­it the Crow, join an all-night ser­vice at The Chapel of His Inex­press­ible Mag­nif­i­cence, or stay home with some­thing to read. Folks in Roja Verde didn’t read much. Pray much, either.

Things were going just about the way they usu­al­ly did on Fri­days. Five tables play­ing pok­er, seri­ous and loud. Three oth­er tables—folks with­out mon­ey or who didn’t cot­ton to gambling—playing what­ev­er such folks played: Whist, Thump Your Neigh­bor, Dou­ble Pedro, Hang the Bas­tard, just as seri­ous as the pok­er tables and maybe a touch loud­er. Cowhands, most of them alone at the bar, drink­ing ’til they couldn’t drink no more, step­ping out­side to be sick in the street, then stum­bling back inside again. Sil­ver Belle mak­ing her rounds, our come­ly school marm let­ting bach­e­lors buy her sar­sa­par­il­las, or sing her off-key songs, or just pay mind to her. Such a din and clam­or that nobody could have hoped to hear the piano even if Four-Fin­ger Pete had been sober enough to play it. That old grand­fa­ther clock in the cor­ner tock-tock-tock­ing, not car­ing that no one could hear it mark­ing our time. A good night, real­ly. A fine night. I sup­pose it seemed unruly, but through the years I’d learned that folks find peace in many ways. They were wel­come to do that in my saloon, how­ev­er they chose to do it, so long as they didn’t hurt nobody too bad as they did it.

At some point not long into the evening—maybe nine-thir­ty, maybe ten—I was jok­ing with Stinky Floyd about the green­horns who’d arrived that morn­ing from out East to prospect, all full of hope and blus­ter. I poured Floyd a drink he prob­a­bly couldn’t pay for. I was a suck­er for pover­ty cas­es. Floyd knew that. Every­body knew that. They took advan­tage. I didn’t mind. Any­how, I was jok­ing with Stinky Floyd when some­where off to my left, near the saloon’s front doors, I became aware of some­thing that was very much out of the ordi­nary for a Fri­day Night at the Pick­led Crow.

Silence.

Before it had spread far, I glanced over to see what was qui­et­ing my hall full of rau­cous, joy­ful, most­ly-pay­ing cus­tomers. And what it was, was Lit­tle Asa.

His dark hair, long and mat­ted. His beard, a thing that could scare off a griz­zly. His pale, gray eyes half-closed, half-crossed. He swayed as he tried to take in the room. I couldn’t tell from behind the bar, but I fig­ured he smelled like a body that had gone too many months with­out a whole­some encounter with water. Maybe as tall as five foot one, sure­ly not an ounce over nine­ty pounds, he looked like some rancher’s wife had dressed up a scare­crow but for­got to stuff it.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, she’d also for­got to put pants on it.

Which, all in all, might not have been enough to shush the town’s week­ly cel­e­bra­tion. The folks of Roja Verde were a hardy lot, and not over­ly sub­ject to dis­rup­tion of their mer­ry­mak­ing. Truth be told, I do not believe it was any­thing at all about Asa himself—not even his lit­tle fel­la, dan­gling there in its untamed glory—that spread a hush among those fine and frol­ic­some folks.

More like­ly, it was the nine-inch knife he clutched in his trem­bling left hand.

But if you can believe it, what struck me most wasn’t any of that. I’d seen knives before, besides weapons so much more awful. I’d seen the vio­lence of intent and the vio­lence of neglect and what they could do to a mere human body. I’d seen dan­gling curiosi­ties far more mem­o­rable than Lit­tle Asa’s. No, sir. What struck me, and what haunts me to this day, was the tears stream­ing down Asa’s cheeks. The hope­less arch of his brows. His low­er lip atrem­ble.

By this time the hall had gone dead qui­et, so every ear heard Asa, his voice soft and unsure, when he said, “I…” and then paused a moment before con­tin­u­ing: “I…I don’t wanna…wanna…”

He lift­ed his knife and slow­ly sur­veyed the hall.

Some­body screamed. I’m not entire­ty sure who. After­ward, folks said it was Sil­ver Belle, but that’s just fool­ish­ness. Beneath Silver’s frills and fan­cies she was tough as old leather, grown up run­ning her family’s ranch after her dad­dy died from ban­dits while she watched, and before cholera sent her ma and her younger broth­ers off to fol­low. Sil­ver had seen so very much worse than this.

The scream did come from her direc­tion, though. I’m fair-to-cer­tain the scream­er was the Rev­erend Barnes, whose voice was a might high even when he wasn’t scream­ing. After the sec­ond hour of all-night ser­vice at The Chapel of His Inex­press­ible Mag­nif­i­cence, as usu­al, the Rev­erend Barnes had asked that his con­gre­ga­tion con­tin­ue pray­ing while he left them for a few moments of qui­et reflec­tion. When Asa walked into my saloon, the Rev­erend Barnes was reflect­ing toward the back of the Crow, a half-emp­ty bot­tle of rye in one hand and Silver’s ample hindquar­ters in the oth­er.

With all the things I’ve done, and in all the years I’ve done them, I’ve learned to see things oth­ers don’t. Things hid so far back behind peo­ples’ eyes they some­times don’t even know it them­selves. And I can say with­out fear of false­hood that in all those years, I’d nev­er seen a pair of eyes that hid such love and kind­ness as those of Lit­tle Asa, despite what­ev­er ter­ror or anger or just plain bewil­der­ment was play­ing out on the rest of his face. I’d long pon­dered those eyes, ever since Asa first stag­gered into my saloon. I often thought on how sad it was, them being trapped in a face so cloud­ed with con­fu­sion and fear. Those eyes, eyes of secret kind­ness cloaked in anguish, went wide at that scream—wide with hor­ror at the glim­mer of com­pre­hen­sion: of where he was, of what he was doing, and of how ter­ri­bly he was dis­tress­ing all those oth­er good folks.

Lit­tle Asa com­menced to wail.

Some folks stayed trans­fixed in their places while oth­ers, more wise or cow­ard­ly (if there’s a dif­fer­ence) made for the rear exit, but only one moved for­ward. Sil­ver Belle, dis­lodg­ing her back­side from the ric­tus of the Rev­erend Barnes’ pan­icked grip, took one slow step for­ward, then anoth­er, then took enough more steps to bring her right up to Lit­tle Asa until she was smil­ing down into those griev­ing eyes.

Asa?” she asked.

He choked out a sob and sur­veyed the room again before look­ing up at her and ask­ing, “Miss Belle? Is this real?”

Some­how she kept smil­ing, then she even man­aged to chuck­le. “Naw, dar­lin’. This here’s just a dream. Now why don’t you put down that pig stick­er of yours and head back home?” She reached up real slow and gen­tle-like and rest­ed her hand on his cheek.

And you know what? Lit­tle Asa almost bought it, even though this must have felt no dif­fer­ent to him than any oth­er wak­ing moment, and even though we all knew he had no home to go back to. He darned-near chose to believe what­ev­er she told him, no mat­ter how pre­pos­ter­ous, because it was what he want­ed to hear. He wouldn’t have been the first.

That’s about when Sher­iff Noel, six foot four, blonde, rosy-cheeked and built like an ox, barged puff­ing through those swing­ing doors right behind Asa.

I am entire­ly sure Sher­iff Noel did not intend to star­tle Lit­tle Asa by storm­ing in so quick and loud. He was just rush­ing to stop trou­ble after hear­ing that scream a moment before, and then hear­ing a most pecu­liar silence from the Crow on a Fri­day night.

And I am equal­ly sure Lit­tle Asa did not intend what came next. He was just turn­ing in pan­ic to see what ani­mal or mon­ster or demon was rush­ing up behind him—turning too quick, his hand rigid with fear. The hand that held the knife. The knife that slashed Silver’s arm, out­stretched in a calm­ing caress.

There was a fair bit of blood. On Sil­ver. On Asa. On the saloon floor.

Sher­iff Noel, no stranger to blood or vio­lence but awful­ly sweet on Sil­ver for many years, did some­thing no one had ever seen him do before: He stepped back from trou­ble rather than rush­ing toward it. His legs near­ly buck­led with the shock of see­ing all that blood flow­ing from a true love he thought he’d lost.

I don’t…I don’t wan­na…” Asa whim­pered, hold­ing the knife between him­self and the Sher­iff, “I didn’t mean to…I’m not…”

As quick as it had blanched a moment before, Sher­iff Noel’s face flushed. Went hard.

He drew his pis­tol.

With all the things I’ve done, and in all the years I’ve done them, I’ve not only learned to see the truth in someone’s eyes. I’ve also learned to see what comes next. I could see what would come next, clear as if it were laid out there before me: Sher­iff Noel, stand­ing over Lit­tle Asa’s corpse. Lit­tle Asa’s life­less eyes star­ing at the ceil­ing. Sil­ver Belle glar­ing, bloody but not hurt so bad after all, hate in her eyes for our brash Sher­iff who had just killed a most pecu­liar but gen­tle man. Because if my long years had taught me to see the truth behind folks’ eyes, Silver’s short years had some­how taught her to see the truth of their hearts. It’s why she always showed such patience and char­i­ty toward Lit­tle Asa. It’s why she’d rebuffed Sher­iff Noel all his long years of pes­ter­ing her. Why she would keep rebuff­ing him until he stopped pes­ter­ing her, or until she fled Roja Verde to final­ly be shed of him.

At that moment I felt so very, very old. I didn’t know what I had left in me. Not much, sure­ly. Not enough for any great­ness. Hard­ly an ember com­pared to the flame I’d borne in my youth in the end­less-seem­ing years of wor­ship and devo­tion and sac­ri­fice.

But I thought: I have enough for this.

PEACE, I thought, and I felt even old­er.

They all stopped.

Most of them seemed daz­zled, like they’d looked at the sun with­out shad­ing their eyes, like every­thing around them was washed with light and they strug­gled to see the out­lines of any­thing what­so­ev­er.

Not Asa, though. Asa turned to me, his eyes a lit­tle clear­er, and said, “I heard you.”

I walked around the bar and to the front of the saloon. I took Asa’s quiv­er­ing hand in mine.

Like you was in my head, Miss Eirene” he said. “Like you was right…right in there. Is…is this real, Miss Eirene?”

I nod­ded, and I smiled the ancient, puck­ered smile that was left to me. “This is no dream, Asa. For bet­ter or worse—and I’ll grant you, most of it’s worse—this is the world we’ve got, to endure and to bless as best we’re able. Now what were you say­ing, dear?” I asked, though I already knew the answer. “You kept try­ing to say some­thing, but you couldn’t quite get it out.”

He frowned as though try­ing to recall it, then that awful look of anguish deep­ened. “I don’t wan­na be this way, Miss Eirene,” he whim­pered. “I don’t know what’s real, some­times. I can’t tell, some­times. I don’t wan­na scare nobody. I ain’t sure what I want. I just want…I just want…”

PEACE, I thought, and I felt old­er still. So old I thought I might lose my fee­ble hold on the with­ered hunk of meat and gris­tle I’d tak­en on as a body—might lose my hold and slip away into noth­ing­ness, spent, as had so many oth­er spir­its through the years. Yet some­thing kept me there.

Lit­tle Asa’s eyes looked up at me, clear of anguish and con­fu­sion and fear, only the love and gen­tle­ness remain­ing, a love and gen­tle­ness like none I’d seen in all my long years of look­ing into eyes and them look­ing back into mine. I must’ve I sagged, for next thing I knew Asa was bear­ing me up despite his small­ness, hold­ing me to him­self and whis­per­ing, “There now, Miss Eirene…recon’ it’s alright, Miss Eirene… there now…”

After a moment, when I was sure I wouldn’t be leav­ing my body, I leaned into him and said, “Thank you.”

Asa laughed.

It was a laugh like none I’d heard from any throat—human or oth­er-world­ly, pro­fane or divine. A laugh that didn’t belong in such a mea­ger frame. A wide, deep, rolling laugh that seemed to well up from the earth itself, shud­der­ing through his legs, shak­ing his body, quak­ing into mine. When he final­ly stopped laugh­ing and his chuck­les fad­ed to silent joy, he said soft­ly, his mouth against my ear, “Naw. Thank you, Miss Eirene. Tru­ly.”

We stood there like that, his small body some­how bear­ing the bur­den of mine, for quite some time. I’m not sure how long it was but that didn’t mat­ter, oth­er folks dazed around us, even the old grand­fa­ther clock in the cor­ner tock-tock-tock­ing the same minute over and over again as it wait­ed for what­ev­er came next.

I’m tired of Roja Verde,” I final­ly whis­pered, “and I sup­pose you are, too. Would you care to head off some­where else?”

He thought on it a moment, then he nod­ded. “Where ’bouts to?” he asked into my hair.

I don’t right­ly know. North?”

Huh,” he replied. “North.”

We stood there for some while longer. Then, hand in hand, we left.

Copy­right © 2019 Andy Giesler

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