Treasure

He stumbled upon the treasure quite by accident. He had been exploring the vicinity when he happened upon it. His first thought: This cannot be real. He cautiously approached. Someone might be playing a trick on him. Perhaps he was being observed. But no one sprung from a concealed location—no one yelled for him to halt his advance. It seemed safe enough to move forward. When he arrived at the treasure, he bent down to touch it, just to make sure it was real. It was real! After one touch, he fled to better-known and safer environs.

That night he could not sleep for thinking of what he had discovered. He thought and thought of ways he could explain it to members of his tribe. If he suddenly showed up with the treasure, anything he said would be suspect. One does not find treasure of this sort every day. No, he would have to think this through.

The next day he went back to where he had found the treasure, but dared not get too close. Instead, he peered at it from a far. It was still there and untouched! But for how long? A fire burned within him to possess it. If not for the taboo placed on matters of this sort by the Law Giver, he would claim the treasure as his own. But no, the Law Giver would never allow it.

As he tried to sleep on the second night after his discovery, he thought perhaps the Law Giver would understand. Perhaps he should approach her, and tell her of his find. No, then if she forbade him from keeping the treasure, it would be lost forever. Conceivably, he could bring it to his village and hide it from the Law Giver. But … where could he hide it? The Law Giver was all-wise; she knew the secrets of his heart.

Quite unexpectedly, he overheard the Law Giver speaking of the place he had found the treasure. This is what he heard: “When they moved out, they told me they left a few things behind, and if we wanted anything, we were welcome to it. I’ve been too busy to go over there, but I think I’ll take a look this afternoon. Maybe there will be something Billy might like.”

Something I might like. Something I might like! Was she toying with him? Did she indeed know of the treasure? Later that afternoon, his mother called Billy to the front of the house. He was not allowed far from home because he was only five years old, so he appeared right away. His mother said, “Look what I found next door where the Simms used to live.” And there it was—the treasure!

His mother handed little Billy the bright red, toy fire truck that had caused him to lose so much sleep. You see, Billy had been afraid his mother would think he had stolen it, even though it seemed to have been abandoned. And in his home, stealing was the one thing his mother, the Law Giver, would never tolerate.

 

Someone’s Been Ridin’ My Mule

Someone’s been ridin’ my mule. She ain’t the same no more. She kicks up a fuss when I try to ride her. She kicks up a fuss when I take her into town. She’s always brayin’ at what I do. She’s never done that before.

Someone’s been ridin’ my mule in the rain. She’s wet when she should be dry.

Someone’s been ridin’ my mule. She don’t like listen’ to Jimmy Rogers no more. She’s likin’ a new kind of music. A kind of music I don’t understand.

Someone’s been ridin’ my mule when I’m not around. She don’t get lonesome for me no more.

Someone’s been ridin’ my mule and I don’t cotton to it. But ain’t much I can do if someone rides my mule when I’m away.

Someone’s been ridin’ my mule, so reckon I’ll get me a new mule.

This Time Tomorrow

Reckon I’d better start at the beginning. Reckon I’ll tell it all. I first met her up at Grayson’s Creek. I had just bought a pair of new boots and my feet were hurting me something awful. With my feet cooling in the water, I was thinking of things past. I’d been back from the war a year by then. Four years of marching and fighting them bluebellies, my feet never did hurt so much as they did that day. Ol’ Robert E. and them other generals rode horses everywhere they went. Us privates walked the whole damn war.

Softly, she came up behind me. The first I knew she was there was when she giggled. I turned to see a young girl no more than sixteen years. She was smiling.

“Whatcha doin’ with your feet in that water?” she wanted to know.

“What are you doin’ sneaking up on a peaceful man just mindin’ his own business?” I asked in return.

Her hands clasped behind her back, she took a tentative step closer. Still she smiled.

“This is my husband’s land and I have a right to know who’s trespassin’ through.”

“You married?”

“Sure ’nuff. Husband’s name is James Foster. He’s a big man in these here parts.”

“You look kinda young to be married.”

She pointed her chin skyward. Eyes veiled, she said, “Us mountain folk marry young. But James is a lot older, he’s thirty-one. I’m his second wife. His first wife, Anne, took sick and died two years back when the cholera passed through. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“The name’s Tom Dula. What might be yours?”

“I’m Laura Foster and I’m mighty pleased to meet you, Mister Dula.”

Without asking if she could, she came and sat down by me—her feet splashing in the water next to mine; she had no shoes to kick off. “Well, Mister Dula, what brings you to this neck of the woods of Tennessee?”

She was pretty. Keen grey eyes. A pert strong chin. Dimpled cheeks that blushed as she wiggled her toes in the cool, clear water. Her hair was dark and loose and fell to her waist. Her fresh young white skin, translucent in the bright sunlight. I took all this in as I was formulating in my mind how much I would tell her. For some reason, I wanted to tell her all of it. I was twenty years old and on the run from the law. I had killed a man. But in the end, all I said was, “Had me a little trouble over in North Carolina. Thought it might be best if I hightailed it outta there until the dust settled.”

She tilted her head and nodded as though she understood. As though she was wise beyond her years. As though she wasn’t a little wisp of a thing. As though my heart wasn’t hers for the taking if only she wasn’t married.

I pulled my feet out of the water and put on my boots. “I gotta be movin’ on, little missy. No time to tarry further, gonna be dark soon.”

Her smile faded, her eyelashes fluttered. “Thought I might invite you to have supper with me and my husband.”

With one foot in the stirrup, my hand on the horn, I hesitated. Perhaps for a moment too long to her way of thinking.

“You wanna eat with us or not?”

She looked hurt. “I’d be right proud to sit at your table. But how is your husband gonna feel about you bringing a strange man to his home?”

Her eyes grew big and round. Her smile returned. “You just leave James to me, Mister Dula.”

I should have gotten on my horse right then and there and rode out. But I did not, to my everlasting regret.

Their cabin wasn’t but a mile from the creek. As we came into the yard, a man who had been chopping wood stood straight and tall. The axe held loosely at his side. His eyes followed us up the path. His manner was neither friendly nor hostile.

“Where ya been, Laura? Ya know there’s chores to be done.”

Laura brushed her hair behind her ears and straightened her back. “I was just down to the creek and came upon this nice gentleman. His name’s Tom. He’s from North Carolina. I’ve invited him to have supper with us.”

He gave his wife a look I couldn’t interpret. He nodded at me, but no smile was forthcoming. “Does Tom have a last name?”

I started to say something, but Laura beat me to it. “Of course he does, silly. It’s Dula.”

“Well, if Tom Dula is going to eat our food, he can help with the wood chopping. You git on inside and lay the table.”

Without a word, Laura turned on her heels and went into the cabin, leaving us two men staring at one another. I rolled up my sleeves and walked over to the man. Holding out my hand, I said, “I appreciate you having me, Mister Foster. I’d be happy to chop all the wood you might need.”

He shook my hand and at last favored me with a slight smile. “No offense, mister. But Laura’s been gone half the day, leaving her chores undone. It kinda threw me for a loop when she walked up with you.”

I started in on a log at the ready while James Foster picked up what he had chopped and brought it into the cabin. I got me three logs cut and was just starting in on splitting them when Laura called from the door. “Supper’s ready. There’s a basin and pitcher up here on the porch. Get washed up and come on in.”

The cabin looked fair sized from the outside, but had only one room. In the far corner stood an old wood stove. I was surprised to see they had a short-handled pump attached to a thick wooden plank that also served as a work counter. The bed was on the opposite side. Right smack dab in the middle of the room was the table with four chairs arranged around it. James Foster sat facing the door with a napkin shoved in his collar. He looked ready to eat. Laura, standing at the counter and still barefoot, had put her hair up. I liked it better loose.

“Come in, Mister Dula, and have a seat,” she beamed. Her husband had lost some of his reserve. “Yes, boy, come on in. You’re welcome at our table.”

The food was good. I hadn’t known how hungry I was. I told them a little about myself and a few war stories. When Laura pressed me for what kind of trouble I was leaving behind in North Carolina, her husband said, “Ain’t none of your concern, girl. Let the man eat in peace.”

After supper, as Laura cleared the table, James and I took out our pipes. I offered him my pouch. “Here, try this. North Carolina is known for its tobacco.”

Him and me chewed the fat for a bit. Then I figured I had stayed my welcome. “I thank ya’all for the vittles, but I reckon it’s time I was movin’ on.”

Laura, who was at the pump cleaning the last of the dishes, turned around and said to James, “It’s late. You think it would be alright if Mister Dula slept in the barn tonight?”

James had warmed to me as he smoked my tobacco and did not hesitate. “Good idea. Fetch him a blanket.”

After lighting their spare lantern, James walked me out to the barn. “While you unsaddle your horse, I’ll pile up some hay for ya. You’re lucky it’s springtime and not winter. You should be comfortable enough. If you have need, the convenience is behind the cabin.” It was a lot better setup than I had anticipated when I had hit the trail that morning. James bade me a good night and left me to myself.

Before turning in, I watered my horse and gave him some hay to hold him over until I could replenish the oat bag hanging from my saddle.

Lying there alone in the darkness, breathing in the smells of a Tennessee barn, I confronted my demons and wondered how I’d gotten into the fix in which I found myself. Sure, I had killed a man. Ol’ Jake Parsons. It was in self-defense, but no one had seen the act. He was drunk and I was drunk. No one had seen him lunge at me with a knife clutched in his hand. No one saw us tussle and fall. No one saw the knife pierce his heart but me. He was well-respected. I was a nobody. By the time I realized what had happened, people were starting to gather. Murmurs were going around that perhaps justice would be best served with a quick hanging. No need to trouble the sheriff. I pushed through the crowd and made for my horse before more people showed up. I was one step ahead of them and made it out of town before they could coalesce and pursue.

I would have to make miles in the morning. Word had certainly gotten about by now. I would head north and hide among the Yankees. Those damn hated Yankees. But it was better than the alternative: a hemp noose and a short dance in the air. I drifted off to a troubled sleep thinking those thoughts.

I don’t know how long I was asleep before I was shaken awake by a gentle hand. It was dark and I was disoriented. “Hush. Don’t say nothin’.” It was Laura.

“What is it, Laura? What’s the matter?”

“Nothin’. I just wanna talk.”

“Well, let me light the lantern so I can see you.”

“No! Just talk to me.”

I brought myself up on one elbow and waited. What did she want me to say? What was this all about? I soon found out.

“Do you think I’m pretty?”

So that’s what it’s all about. “I think you should go back into the cabin before James finds you gone.”

“Don’t you talk to me like I was a child. I’m all grown up. Now answer me. Do you think I’m pretty?”

With a heavy sigh, I answered her. “Yes, Laura. You are pretty. Now leave me be. You’re gonna cause nothin’ but trouble being out here.”

She came closer. I could feel her warm breath on my cheek. I could smell her hair. She must have washed it recently. It still smelled of soap. Her hand touched mine. It was soft like I knew it would be. She was trying me. Lord, was she trying me. “If you don’t leave, I’m gonna saddle my horse and be outta this barn before you ever knew I was here.”

She grabbed my hand and held it tight. I could not see her, but I heard her sniffles. All her words came out in a rush. “I’m in the prime of my life. I don’t want to grow old and worn on this forty acre farm. I’m no farm woman. I was meant for better. I’m only married to James because my pa made me do it. He has eyes on this land. Let’s leave tonight. Let’s head to a big city. I’ll be your woman. You’ll never be sorry. I know how to please a man. You don’t even have to marry me.”

I gently extricated my hand from hers. I hadn’t been around woman folk much. I mean in that manner. But I knew they were filled to the brim with emotions. You had to be careful with them. You never knew, they could go off like a firework on the Fourth of July. And the last thing I needed right then, with her husband not twenty yards away, was an hysterical woman on my hands.

In a soft voice, one I hoped sounded caring and honest, I said, “Laura, you are probably the best lookin’ woman I ever did see. And if things were different, I’d take you to the ends of the earth. But a man does not ride onto another man’s land, eat his food, enjoy his hospitality, and then ride out with his wife on the back of his horse. It just ain’t right. You understand that, don’t ya?”

Things were quiet for a spell. For a long spell. At long length, she whispered, “Are you saying if I weren’t married you’d take me with you?”

I nodded my head. But then realized she couldn’t see the motion in the dark. So I said, “That about covers it.”

She patted my hand. How she knew where it was, was beyond me. It was pitch black in that barn. She must have been part cat. “That’s okay, Tom. I understand. You go back to sleep now. I’ll see you in the morning.”

She leaned in and kissed me on the cheek, and then she was gone. My only thought at that point was, like hell she’ll see me in the morning. I was gonna be gone before first grey light. I lay back down and smiled to myself. Life sure can be crazy at times.

I must have been more worn out then I knew. I was awakened by a crow’s caws. He sure was insistent. It was full light out. Damn, I should have been long gone by now.

I got up and grabbed my saddle, but before I could fling it on my horse, Laura walked in. “Don’t be in such a rush. We have time to have breakfast before we leave.”

I shook my head in dismay. “I told you last night, you’re not leaving with me.”

“I know what you said. But I’m not married no more.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean James is gone and now I’m free to go with you.”

“What do you mean James is gone?”

She flung her arms up in the air in exasperation and explained it to me. “I killed him last night right after I talked with you. Pulled the big carving knife right across his old throat as he slept, I did.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was she funning with me? The look on her face said otherwise. I dropped my saddle and raced for the cabin. The door stood open and I went right in. There he was. Lying on his back. The front of his nightshirt stained a crimson red. His eyes half lidded, his mouth open.

I heard a noise behind me. It was Laura as she came in through the door. “What are you dallying for? If you don’t want breakfast, I have my kit packed, ready to go. And I won’t have to ride the back of your horse. I’ll ride James’ mare. She’s a fine horse. Her name is Maggie.”

I looked into her grey eyes. She was stark raving mad. Funny I hadn’t noticed before. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to set her off. I just wanted to get out of there. Then any decision I might have made was taken out of my hands. The clip clop of horses’ hooves came to me from outside. Someone was riding into the yard.

She looked at me. I looked at her. I knew what she was gonna do before she knew what she was gonna do. Through her eyes, I saw the thought process going around in her mind. When she had decided her course of action, a determination played across her face. She grinned at me and said, “It would have been so much fun, Tom.”

I was resigned to my fate. I should have died in the war. I should have died when Jake Parsons came at me with that knife. I didn’t know it, but I’ve been on borrowed time since I left North Carolina. I smiled at her and said, “Yup. It would have been one hell of a hay ride, Little Missy.”

Without another word, she turned and ran screaming from the cabin. She ran right into the arms of her father and three of her brothers who had come for a visit. The upshot is that the trial was over before I knew it. Laura testified that she and James had befriended me and I paid back their kindness by slitting his throat while she was out of the cabin, pulling water up from the well. She said it had been my intention to kill her after having had my sinful way with her. Only the fortuitous arrival of her family saved her. It made no sense. But she was believed. I said not a word. What was the use?

The horses move sluggishly. They are in no rush. Neither am I. I hear that old crow cawing to his mate. I notice every leaf on every tree, the green and brown of the different grasses. The clouds have never been fluffier, never whiter. The sky never bluer. The sun rides high, the crisp morning air flows around me, embraces me, caresses me. It is a beautiful day. There’ll never, ever be such an astonishing, lovely day again. Never. It’s a great day to be alive. I’m riding in the back of a wagon, my arms tied behind me. My coffin follows in a wagon of its own. We’re headed for an old white oak just outside of town. The hanging tree. This time tomorrow, I’ll be planted six feet down, wishing I was anywhere else.

Time to Move On

It’s the 12th of June and I am going to die. We all die at some point, but knowing your death is imminent kinda changes your complacency about the matter. But still, I’m at peace.

I haven’t had a home since shortly after I was laid off. At first, I slept in my car, but then I had to sell it. So, for the last five months I’ve been sleeping in back alleys and doorways. That’s why I was there and saw what I did.

It was getting late. I was on my way to a favored sleeping place. It had been a long day. It’s hard to find work when your clothes are dirty and you are just as dirty. At least I wasn’t hungry. I had found a cornucopia of food behind the Korean market down on 7th Street. It was in the dumpster. I had myself a nice salad once I discarded what was rotten from the head of lettuce. There was also a badly dented and out-of-date can of Vienna sausages. Thank God for pop-off lids. It was the first thing I had eaten all day.

Passing by that abandoned building over on Fairfax, I heard a small scared voice say, “Please don’t hurt me again.” There was a pleading in it that just broke my heart.

I went into the building and searched from room to room. Then I heard the scream. I rushed to where I thought it came from and blundered into a scene from hell. I beheld a man on his knees, bending over the body of a little blonde-haired girl. Blood was pooling on the floor around her head. The man held a knife in his hand—he was cutting off her clothes.

My only thought, not knowing the girl was already dead, was to save her. I jumped on the man’s back, and as he tried to throw me off, we fell, entangled, to the floor. He’d managed to hold onto the knife and slashed me once across my chest. But before he could have another go at me, I grabbed his wrist, and turning it inward, I fell on him. He was dead before we stopped rolling. The knife had pierced his heart.

Without a thought for him, I went to the girl. She was looking at me, her blue eyes wide open, but she did not see me. She was dead; he had slit her throat. I knelt down beside her and brushed the blonde hair from her pretty face. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Then I did something I hadn’t done in a long, long time … I cried. I cried for the girl and I cried for myself. I did not want to live in a world where something like this could happen.

“What the fuck!”

I looked up to see Teddy turn and bolt through the door. Teddy was someone I had met at the soup kitchen while waiting in line. He saw me drenched in blood and ran. I couldn’t blame him. I didn’t care what he thought. I closed the little girl’s eyes and then I prayed for her soul … and mine.

Teddy must have told the police what he had seen. I am surrounded by five cops. They all have their guns drawn. That’s rich. But it’s also opportune. I’m tired. I just want to move on. I stand and point the killer’s knife at the cops. The last thing I hear are the pops of five guns. The last thing I feel are the warm bullets as they pierce my flesh and take me off to a better world.

A Conversation with a Friend

I was hanging out the other night at the Tiki Hut, minding my own business, when a voice behind me said, “Hey, man. What’s up?”

I should first explain that the Tiki Hut is an edifice at the marina where I live. The denizens of said marina congregate there on occasion to commune with one another. I, on the other hand, avoid it like the plague. It’s not that I don’t like people; it’s just that I don’t like being around people. But that particular evening, I had the place to myself.

I turned around, and standing there was this dude I had never seen before, although he did look somewhat familiar.

“Hello,” I said in response. I was a little perturbed at having my solitude interrupted, but decided not to be rude. “Are you new here?” I asked in a friendly manner.

“Kind of,” he said with a slight smile.

I mentally shrugged. I didn’t care one way or the other. I was just trying to be polite. Well, I had done my part and started to head back to my boat. I had a six-pack of cold beers waiting for me, and I thought it about time I paid it some attention.

“Want a beer?”

It was the dude. He was holding a plastic grocery bag that I had not noticed before. It definitely had the outline of a six-pack. Figuring the guy might be lonely, and thinking I might as well do my Christian duty, I said, “Sure, why not?” I would have a beer and we’d shoot the shit and then I’d get the hell out of there. I reckoned I could put up with him for the time it would take to drink one beer.

He reached into the bag and came out with two bottles of my favorite beer. Things were looking up. He did the honors of popping the caps and we both took a long pull of that cold, good-tasting beverage.

“So,” I said, “you moving in?”

“I’m thinking about it. I wanted to get a feel for the place first. Do you like living here?”

“It’s okay. As long as you pay your rent on time, they leave you alone.”

I’ll not bore you with the rest of the mundane conversation. That first beer led to a second and then a third. I was starting to warm up to the guy by the fourth. Then it dawned on me. We both had had four beers each, but we had started out with only one six-pack. When I mentioned that fact, he said, “No, you must be mistaken. There were two six-packs in the bag.”

Another mental shrug on my part.

As I popped the cap on my fifth beer, he asked me, “So, what do you think of the state the world is in?”

If I had been asked that question on the first or second or even the third beer, I would have bolted. I don’t get into conversations like that. Truth be known, I generally don’t get into conversations at all. I live alone and I like it that way. I don’t have to please anyone and I sure as hell don’t have to answer stupid questions. But … I was on my fifth beer and the guy was buying. So, what the hell?

“It depends on what world you are talking about. My little world is doing just fine. I eat every day. And when it rains, I’m dry. What more could a man ask for?”

He nodded, but said nothing. Fueled by Guinness Stout, I went on.

“Now, if you’re asking about the world in general, I would have to say that, for the majority of the people in it, the place is a shit-hole. Wouldn’t you say so?”

“I would say that the vast majority of the people on this planet are living the lives they want to live.”

Now the guy was pissing me off. Being of Irish descent and having four and a half Guinnesses in me got me up on my soap box.

“Do you believe in God?” I asked with a drunken sneer.

“I have heard of Him, but I don’t know if I believe in Him.”

“Well, if God is real, how can he let the suffering go on? How can he allow a baby to get cancer? How can the son-of-a-bitch let the world get into the mess that it is in today?”

“Good questions, my friend. Very good questions.”

“Don’t patronize me, and hand me another of those goddamn beers.”

I was in rare form.

When I had been placated with my sixth beer (but who was counting?), my new-found friend went on.

“Many people feel as you do. They use the same argument. ‘If there is a God, how can He allow the suffering?’ I think the answer is that there is no God. There is only the Oneness. There is only us. Perhaps we are God. And if we are God, how could we allow ourselves to suffer?”

That was it for me. Free beer or not, I was out of there. The guy was crazy. But first I would finish my beer … just to be polite.

Then he went on.

“It’s a shame that we don’t believe in reincarnation, because that would explain many things. If reincarnation was for real, that would mean souls exist before birth. It might even mean that we choose our lives. That life is not a crap shoot.”

About then, I was thinking, You’re a crap shoot!

“Do you know that physicists have proven, mathematically at least, that there is no such thing as time, and that we are living in a hologram? And if that is so, then what does anything matter? Look at it this way. We live in a dimension known as space-time. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot have time without space and you cannot have space without time. Right?”

“If you say so. How about another beer?” We were now into the third six-pack that wasn’t there.

“Think of it this way. Space-time is a manifestation only of the physical plane. Off the physical plane, there is no space-time by definition. Correct?”

“Please stop asking me to confirm what you are saying. I’ll admit it makes sense . . . so far. So, I’ll sit here and listen to you as long as that magic bag keeps popping out Guinnesses.”

“Okay. Now visualize this. If you were to look into a dimension of time-space from a dimension of non-time-space, meaning a non-physical universe, what would you see?”

“Your momma!”

He smiled at me with such forbearance that I felt ashamed at having made such a flippant remark. And I sobered up instantly. “I’m sorry I said that. Please go on.”

“I take no offense and I assure you, ‘my momma’ takes no offense.”

I pushed my half-finished beer aside and waited. He didn’t seem drunk, yet he had had as many beers as I had. He took another deep swallow of his Guinness and continued.

“What you would see is all time happening at once. That is what you would see. Now, here’s my point. If all time happens at once and we are living in a hologram—a false reality if you will—and if we exist before we are physically conceived, and if we know the lives we are going to live, and if there is no time, which means the duration of our lives are as one-millionth of the time it takes to blink an eye . . . then how are we harmed?”

A good question to which I had no answer. But I had to ask, “Who the hell are you?”

“I’ve been known by many names over many lives. My time on the space-time plane is over. I just come to visit once in a while because that’s what I do. I am a teacher. Sometimes to the multitudes, sometimes to just one lonely man thinking of drinking a beer by himself. In my last incarnation, I was known as Jesus Bar Joseph, or Jesus, Son of Joseph. In parting, let me say this. There is no God. There is only the Oneness and we are all fragments of that Oneness, playing out our existence. Working our way back to the Oneness where we will be reunited. There is no hell and there is no heaven. There is no loss, there is only us. Peace be with you, my friend.”

Then he glowed with such intensity that I had to cover my eyes. The brilliance was filled with so much love. I have never felt such love. I have never been so loved. It was all I could do to not break down and cry right there on the spot.

Then he was gone.

Now I sit here pondering his words. If we are all One, then hiding from my neighbors might not be such a smart thing. I think I’ll invite that nice young couple who live a few boats over for a Sunday brunch. If I can make it through that, perhaps I’ll visit the Tiki Hut a little more often.

You never know who you might meet there.

Three Steps

I’m three steps from meeting my maker. Three more steps to the noose. I am ready to die; I reckon I deserve to die. I have killed before, but never for such a frivolous reason as brings me to these last three steps.

The whole mess started down El Paso way when I walked into that little cantina. It was a bucket of blood, a real dive. But I had a thirst to slack and it was the first saloon I saw as I rode into town. Once inside, it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. When I could see again, I saw a bar against the far wall. Two men were leaning against it, staring into their drinks. A few tables were scattered around the room—all empty. It was mid-day, so that was no surprise.

I made my way to the bar and put my foot on the brass rail. The barman was a little slow in coming my way. I had just rode twenty-five miles and the dust was thick in my throat. I had no patience for a slow-movin’ barkeep. When he was opposite me, I grabbed his shirt and pulled his face to mine. Looking him dead in the eye, I said, “Give me your finest rotgut and if you dilly-dally, I’ll put a bullet in your leg.” As I said it, I drew my .45 from its leather. His eyes widened and he reached under the bar and came up with an almost full bottle of some good stuff. “Here, mister, it’s on the house,” he stuttered.

With that taken care of, I picked up the bottle and, leaving the glass where it was, took a good pull. I had ridden my horse almost to death. I had to move fast, they were on my trail. Yes, I had killed two men, but they were trying to kill me. I finally lost the posse in the badlands. Now I’m only a few miles from Mexico and freedom. But as it turned out, I might as well have been a million miles from the border.

I don’t know what she was doing coming into that hellhole of a bar, but when I saw her, my plans flew out the window. She pushed through the swing doors as though she owned the place. And, in a way, she did. She was tall and blonde. Her figure had more curves than a coiled rattler. Her hair was up—her smile could kill. Her eyes were gray and they looked my way.

She strolled right up and in a voice that would have made strong men weep, she said, “Ain’t you the big one.”

Without a word, I took the empty glass from the bar and poured some of the amber liquid into it. She took the proffered glass and said, “My name is Rose and I like a man who will buy a girl a drink.”

When we had worked the bottle down to half empty, she told me to grab it and took me by the hand. She led me to the stairs and we ascended to the second floor, to a door at the far end of the hall. “This is where I call home,” she purred. By now I had forgotten about the twenty-five dust-coated miles, the posse, the killings—everything.

Once in the room with the door locked, she pointed to a table and said, “You’ll find some glasses over there. Pour us a shot.” I found the glasses, blew the dust out of ’em, and did as I was told. When I turned back around, she was sitting on the bed. Patting the mattress, she beckoned softly. “Come and sit by me.”

Well, partners, that was all she wrote. For the next three days, we barely left that room. We had our hooch and food sent up. I had never known a woman like her. I’d mostly only been with whores, but she was no whore. She told me that she loved me. We spent three days exploring every inch of each other’s bodies, and I fell in love for the first time in my life.

It was on the morning of the fourth day that my head started to clear. We were lying in bed. I was on my back and she was propped up on one elbow, running her finger down my chest when she said she wanted to go to Mexico with me. I told her that was fine by me, but there was no rush. That’s when she got a funny look on her face and exclaimed, “No, we have to leave today!” Before I could say anything else, there was a knock on the door. I got out of bed and slipped on my pants. I knew who it was; it was the little Mex boy who had been bringing us our food and booze. I usually took the tray at the door and handed him a dollar. But this time was different. He beckoned me out into the hall and asked that I shut the door. When it was closed behind me, he whispered, “Señor, you have been good to me, so I must tell you that you are in great danger.”

I took the tray from his hands and said, “Don’t worry, son. This is the kind of danger I like,” and winked at him.

I started to turn, but he grabbed my arm. “You do not understand. She belongs to another man, a bad man. She has done this before and three men have died. Her man will be back tomorrow, so today she will ask you to leave and take her with you. If you are here tomorrow, José will kill you.”

I put the tray on the floor and asked the boy to tell me all that he knew. He told me people were making bets with each other if I’d get away before José got back or if I’d be planted up on the hill with the other three. It seemed Rose, my great love, was using me to get away from José. In this country, a woman can’t travel alone. And besides, as the boy told me, José leaves her with no money when he goes away.

The news kinda punched me in the gut. I gave the boy a five-dollar gold piece and thanked him. Picking up the tray, I entered the room with a smile on my face.

“Where have you been? I missed you, big boy.”

Still smiling, I placed the tray on the bed. “You chow down. I’m gonna have me a drink.”

I had me some thinking to do.

As I sat in the chair and watched her eat, I weighed my options. We could leave together and avoid this man José, or I could leave alone. Or, we could stay and could have it out with José. The problem was I didn’t know if she was worth it. She had played me. If I took her with me, would she ditch me once we were in Mexico?

I was still thinking on those thoughts when she broke my reverie by saying, “I want to be out of here by noon. I’m going to take a bath; you pack and then settle our bill. I’ll meet you at the livery stable.”

Still smiling, I said, “I’ll see you at the livery.” She gathered up some clothes, got herself dressed, and left to take her bath.

When she had gone, I sat there in thought and added another option to the other three. I could just kill the lying bitch and be done with her.

I put on my shirt and boots, strapped on my .45, and went downstairs still undecided. By the time I reached the livery, I had decided that I’d leave without her. She was a fine-looking woman and the sex was good, but I had enough trouble in my life without no crazy man coming after me. I saddled my pinto and started down the street at a slow pace. As I passed the saloon, Rose pushed through the swing doors and saw me. She dropped her bags and ran up, grabbed ahold of the saddle horn, and walked alongside. Looking up at me, she implored, “Where you going? Wait! I’ll get my horse.”

“I’m sorry. It was nice, but this here is where we go down our separate trails.”

She wouldn’t let go, so I picked up the pace a mite. She still hung on. Then I saw her look down the street and the look on her face said it all. She let go and hightailed it back to the saloon.

Astride a sorrel rode a big man … a big, mean-looking man. It had to be José. As we came abreast of each other, he grabbed the reins of my horse. There we stood, eye to eye, neither one of us speaking. Finally he said in a very deep voice, “Whatcha doin’ with my woman?”

“Nothing, just tryin’ to get outta town,” I answered.

I saw it in his eyes; he was going to draw on me. I may be slow when it comes to women, but I’m fast when it comes to gun play. I had a bullet through his forehead before he cleared leather. That was my mistake, that and taking up with Rose. I should have let him draw first. The whole thing was seen by the town marshal and I was quickly arrested. I thought for a moment of killing the marshal before he arrested me, but I never did kill no man that was not trying to kill me.

For three days, I knew of love. In three steps, I die.

How Slats Lost His Cymbals

By Mike Royko

March 7, 1973

Many people were shocked by the recent news report of the two baseball players who swapped their wives, their children—even their dogs. They see it as still another example of our new, loose morality.
That may be. But it isn’t the first time such a thing has happened.
I remember a slightly similar incident involving the Grobnik family, who used to live in my old neighborhood.
The cause of it all was Slats Grobnik, the eldest son.
One day he decided to join the alderman’s marching boys band, which played in his parades and rallies and also threw stones at windows displaying pictures of his opponent.
The alderman had been Slats’ hero ever since his father had said the man never worked a day in his life.
Because of his peculiar ear for music, Slats was given the cymbals to play. He rushed home and immediately began practicing. He hoped that if he did well, the alderman would let him play something else, such as the horses.
Mr. Grobnik was working nights at the time, so when Slats began marching through the flat, clanging the cymbals, he came roaring out of bed.
He hit Slats on the head with one of the cymbals, causing the boy’s eyes to roll even more than they usually did.
This touched off a terrible row, with Mrs. Grobnik crying that her husband should not stifle Slats’ musical development.
That was when Mr. Grobnik said he would like to swap his family.
“I would trade all of you for a little peace and quiet,” he shouted, hitting Mrs. Grobnik with a cymbal, too.
“Ma, you can get alimony,” Slats yelled. “I will be your witness.”
Mrs. Grobnik gathered her clothes and children and said she was leaving and would not return until Mr. Grobnik apologized.
At first, Mr. Grobnik could not believe they were really gone. To make sure, he changed the locks. Then he want back to bed.
Mrs. Grobnik took the children and went around the corner to stay with her friend Ruby Peak, who had a nice apartment above the war-surplus store.
“Now you are the man of the family,” Mrs. Grobnik tearfully told Slats. He turned pale, thinking that meant he might have to go to work.
Word of the breakup quickly spread through the neighborhood. Naturally, some of the unattached women set their caps for Mr. Grobnik. They didn’t get anywhere with him, though, because he didn’t like women who wore caps.
The shapely widow who ran the corner bakery hurried over with some fresh sweet rolls for him.
And as Mr. Grobnik ate them, she leaned forward and whispered huskily in his ear:
“Is there anything else you would like?”
“Yeah,” he said, “next time bring a loaf of rye.”
When Slats’ teacher heard of the separation, she worried that he might suffer a trauma.
The next day he came to class with tears streaming down his face.
The teacher assumed it had something to do with his home life. Actually, somebody in the school yard had told a filthy joke, and Slats had laughed until he cried.
She put her arm around him and said: “There, there.”
Slats said: “Where, where?” and gave her a pinch.
She ordered him from the room, which didn’t bother Slats, as he figured he had learned enough for one day.
A few days after the separation, old Mrs. Novak asked Slats what his mother was doing.
“She is going to Reno,” Slats said.
He didn’t know what that meant, but he had heard someone say it in a movie.
Old Mrs. Novak didn’t know what it meant either. She figured it must mean Mrs. Grobnik had run off with a man named Reno.
So she went to the grocery store and told all the other ladies about it.
“I’ll bet he is a no-good gigolo,” one of them said.
That afternoon, they all told their husbands that Mrs. Grobnik was carrying on with Mr. Reno, a notorious gigolo.
The husbands discussed it in the tavern. One of them said: “I think I know the guy. He lives over in the Italian neighborhood.”
Another said: “I know the one. He has a mustache and hangs out in the pool hall.”
When Mr. Grobnik stopped for a beer, they told him his wife was in love with a notorious pool shark and fortune hunter named Reno, who had a mustache and pointy shoes.
“Everybody in the neighborhood knows about it,” the bartender said. “I hear she has even sold her wedding ring to give him money.”
Enraged, Mr. Grobnik went to the pool hall and punched the first man he saw wearing a mustache. He turned out to be a jukebox distributor, and three of his boys beat Mr. Grobnik with pool cues.
When Mr. Grobnik came to in the hospital, his wife and children were at his bedside. Mrs. Grobnik said she would come back home and make Slats give up the cymbals.
“Will you stay away from Reno?” Mr. Grobnik said.
“But Reno is in Nevada,” said Mrs. Grobnik.
Mr. Grobnik smiled. “Good. I must have really taught him a lesson.”

She Was Born

She was born a free spirit.

She was the most beautiful woman in all the world.

Her name was Maria.

She touched me . . . she loved me.

I was not worthy of her love.

But she loved me nonetheless.

Then one dark night she was taken from me.

It’s now early morning.

I awake because of the sound.

The scream.

The horror.

But dreams can fool you.

I am alone.

It was I who found her body.

Her dead eyes looked into mine, but she did not see me.

I beheld her broken body, but it was not the woman I had loved.

Her essence had fled to another part of the universe … to another realm

I retrieve my gun and go in search of the man who had killed her.

He’s where I knew him to be.

I raise the gun and stick the barrel into his ear.

His brains spray out.

His blood forms a red mist that floats in the air … for a brief moment.

He’s gone.

Good … very good.

But his death does not bring back my Maria.

Now I will join her.

The gun barrel feels right in my mouth.

I pull back the hammer.

My hand is on the trigger.

My mind is on Maria,

I squeeze the trigger.

I am no more … until my essence is reborn.

Maria will find me.

Love is like that.

48 Hour Deal!!!

Mahoney is on sale for 99 cents today and tomorrow (March 23rd & 24th). Reviews are averaging 4.8 stars.

“In this compelling, richly researched novel, author Andrew Joyce tells a story of determination and grit as the Mahoney clan fights to gain a foothold in America. From the first page to the last, Mahoney is a riveting, historically accurate tale of adventure, endurance, and hope.”

In the second year of an Gorta Mhór—the Great Famine—nineteen-year-old Devin Mahoney lies on the dirt floor of his small, dark cabin. He has not eaten in five days. His only hope of survival is to get to America, the land of milk and honey. After surviving disease and storms at sea that decimate crew and passengers alike, Devin’s ship limps into New York Harbor three days before Christmas, 1849. Thus starts an epic journey that will take him and his descendants through one hundred and fourteen years of American history, including the Civil War, the Wild West, and the Great Depression.