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.
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.”
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