PIECES OF DESTINY
I was only dimly aware of the events of the next few hours, as I swirled around in a murky gray fog. The doctor had given me some kind of injection — I had no idea the extent of medical science in 1864, but I figured it was probably a little short of what Blue Cross would’ve covered — and I awoke some hours later as I opened my eyes to the dim yellow light of Travis’ bedroom at the Colt’s farmhouse. A sharp pain in my throat reminded me I was still alive.
Shit, I thought. Still stuck in 1864. My hand lightly touched the bandage on my sternum, which now had a deep vertical gash. My breath fluttered and rasped as my chest rose and fell; most of the air hissed out of the opening in my throat, which was an uncomfortable sensation compared to the normal act of breathing through my nose and mouth. The unvarnished wood logs of the right side of Travis’ room were dark and gloomy, the roof was rough-hewn, and I could make out weird flickering shadows that danced in time to the pale yellow flame of the kerosene lamp on the bedside table. A distant rumble told me the storm had hit while I was unconscious, leaving the windows on the left wall streaked with the downpour.
The pain in my throat was just barely tolerable, bubbling just below the surface. Suddenly, the door opened and Mrs. Colt stepped in, her face ashen. I started to speak, but she immediately hushed me and called out to the others in the living room. Dr. Wells quickly entered and strode over to my bed, trailed by Travis and Lem, who hovered right behind him.
“Good,” the doctor said, as he listened to my chest with his stethoscope, then peered deep into the inside of my mouth using a tongue-depressor. “A little more light over here, please!”
Travis held the lantern closer.
Dr. Wells leaned towards my face. “You’ve been unconscious for about three hours, Jason,” he said quietly. “I gave you a mild morphine injection, and the swelling in your throat is already starting to go down. Once your air passage is fully normal, I’ll be back in the morning to stitch up your throat, and let you breathe normally. I think the scarring will be minimal.”
“But what...” I hissed, then recoiled. My voice sounded like some kind of monstrous gurgle. “When will I be able to...”
“Hush, now,” soothed Mrs. Colt. “You need your rest. I’ve changed your shirt. You can stay in here for the next few days.”
“Our first concern is infection,” said Dr. Wells, slipping his stethoscope into his black leather bag.
All we have to do is wait about 60 years for them to invent penicillin, I thought giddily. With my luck, I’ll die of some goddamned disease that could be fixed by a fifty-cent pill from Costco back home. That gave me some hope; death would at least take me away from this hell. Permanently.
“I’ve left this small bottle of absinthe with Mrs. Colt in case you need it for the pain,” he continued, rubbing his eyes with exhaustion. “I’ll be back at dawn to check on you again. I believe the worst is over.”
I started to correct him by saying, “sure, that’s easy for you to say,” but it came out as a couple of “gaks” and a series of heaving coughs.
“Don’t try to talk yet,” he said, putting a hand on my chest. “Your vocal chords were damaged by the blow, not by the surgery. They’re terribly swollen, but I can’t detect any hemorrhaging. We’ll see how you are in the morning, and I’ll decide when you’re well enough to leave this bed. Until then...”
“Prisoner...” I murmured. “Stuck... here.”
He smiled wryly. “I wouldn’t call it that. Listen to me, son: where there’s life, there’s always hope. I want you to cling to that thought.” He stood up and put on his hat. “Goodnight, Jason. I’m so glad I was close by the Harper’s farm. If I was another couple of minutes later...” He shook his head. “But I wasn’t, and you’re alive. We can be grateful to God for that. Goodnight, Mrs. Colt.”
He left, and Travis stepped by the bed, illuminated by the bedside lantern. By the look of his eyes, he’d been crying, which shocked me. Travis was always so strong, so stubborn; as far as I knew, he hadn’t ever even shed a tear when his father beat him, despite the marks on his back.
“That was a low-down thing that Truman boy did,” he said in a low voice. “Why, that t’weren’t no honorable fight. You done apologized and held out your hand! I reckon there ain’t nobody there who ain’t on your side now, Jason.”
Lem nodded excitedly. “I think you’d’ve done whupped the Truman boy good, too!”
I managed a small smile, then shook my head. “I shoulda run,” I hissed in a wheeze. “Shoulda just hit the road, and... just avoided the whole thing.”
Travis squeezed my shoulder. “You’re too brave for that,” he said. “You stood up in front of all those people and put on a show! I ain’t never seen something like that. Whole town’s talkin’ about it — singin’ and dancin’ like that.”
“Hush, now,” said Mrs. Colt, as she shooed the boys away. “Jason needs his sleep. I’m going to change his dressing now.” She peeled the bloody bandages off and began wrapping some clean white cloth around my throat, leaning me forward slightly.
“How bad... how bad does it look?” I said, wheezing slightly. I could feel only a tiny bit of cold air trickling in from my mouth, but my chest still rose and fell normally.
She looked at my throat, then looked away and hesitated. “That’s... that’s for Doctor Wells to say.”
I closed my eyes. My voice is shot, and now I’m disfigured. Great.
I leaned forward, and the whole room spun and I immediately fell back. Whoa, I thought. Whatever drugs they’d given me had totally whacked me out. “Let me sleep awhile,” I rasped. “Please.”
She nodded. “I’ll be back every hour to check on you. Stay in this bed. In the meantime, Mr. Colt and the boys and I are going to pray for you.”
I rolled my eyes. Lotta good that’ll do, I thought. I started to say something sarcastic, but thought better of it. She meant well. Finally, I nodded and rolled to my side. The living room clock chimed again, and I closed my eyes as thunder rolled in the distance.
§ § § § §
I was awakened early next morning by a knock. A small crowd of visitors swarmed into the room: Faith Shaw; her father, the county judge; and her mother (whom I had only met briefly before), along with Mrs. Weeks from the school. All of them said the right things, but Faith almost recoiled when she saw the bloody white rags around my throat.
She clasped my hand. “I’m so sorry this happened, Jason. I care for you so very much. Look... I made a drawing of you after our recital last night. I meant to give it to you before you left.” She handed me a piece of paper, and I glanced at it and smiled. The likeness wasn’t bad: she got the eyes just right, and even had left my hair in back a little scruffy-looking, with my arm raised as if I were in mid-song. Almost as good as a photograph, I thought.
“It’s nice,” I wheezed. “In fact, I...” my voice let out a strange honk. “Sorry,” I said in a whisper, the pain a sharp reminder of my injury. “I won’t be able to talk for awhile.”
“Don’t you worry about that, now,” said Judge Shaw, patting my shoulder affectionately. “All you need to do right now is rest.” They backed away through the doorway.
I smiled faintly and nodded my thanks. From the living room, I heard a slight commotion, then the bedroom door opened wide. A man dressed almost entirely in black entered: it was the Reverend Lucius Abrams, who suddenly loomed over me, casting a dark shadow across my face.
“I heard what happened,” he said soothingly, but there was a underlying tone of sarcasm in his voice. “So very tragic.” He leaned down and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Ironic, isn’t it? To have someone so consumed with their own talent, only to suddenly have it taken away after scorning God. The very definition of hubris.”
My face burned. I gestured for him to come closer. I put my lips to his ear. “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, asshole,” I said in a low voice.
Abrams took a sudden jolt, then he stood up. “‘Be not deceived!’” he cried in a loud voice, on the verge of shouting. “‘God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ Galatians 6, verse 7.”
“Get out,” I said, in a voice that sounded like something out of The Exorcist. I wanted to add, “and don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out,” but I was in too much pain, and this pompous jerk wasn’t worth the effort.
Rev. Abrams stormed out the room and pushed past a teenage boy standing in the doorway. I didn’t recognize him at first, but it slowly dawned on me as he crept closer that it was the instigator of the events of Saturday night: John Truman. He held his hat in his hand and was trembling slightly. His face had a fresh outbreak of severe acne, even worse than when I had seen him on Saturday night; some of the sores were purple and festering, making him look like the recent victim of a swarm of bees.
“Go on, now!” yelled a man behind him. “Do what I told ya, or I’ll whip the tar outta ya again!”
The boy took a few tentative steps forward and stopped at my bedside. I had to restrain myself from leaning forward and strangling him. He was younger than I remembered — probably 13, 14 at the most — but was at least my height.
“I’m... I’m right sorry for what I did,” he mumbled.
“LOUDER!” called the man, who was clearly the boy’s father.
“I said I was SORRY!” the boy cried. “Really I am! I ain’t proud for what I did at the recital yesterday. I was aimin’ for your jaw, fair and square. Never meant to hit ya in the throat.” He looked down at the floor.
I shook with anger. This boy, Truman, had changed my life forever. Whether I stayed in 1864 St. Louis or wound up back in my own time in the future, he took away the one thing I had, the only thing that made me different from everybody in the world: my voice. I’d never be able to sing again. Oh, sure, maybe I’d be able to croak out a drunken karaoke tune at a bar, or sing ‘happy birthday’ at my Aunt’s birthday party or some crap like that. But any hope I ever had of being a real performer with a career was gone forever — snuffed out, like stomping on a candle.
The boy held out his hand. I glared at him, refusing to shake it. An uncomfortable silence passed.
“Maybe it’s time you should leave, now,” said Mrs. Colt, walking in with a tray. “Nice of you to stop by, Mr. Truman. You, too, Johnny. Please say hello to Mavis for me. I hope we’ll see her at church later on.”
I’ve got to kill him, I thought, my mind racing. If John Truman took away my voice, the least I can do to him is to take away his life. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the right thing to do. But I’d have to come up with a plan first, and that would take time.
“What in the Sam Hill is goin’ on in here?” yelled Mr. Colt. “The Reverend seemed mighty upset as he was leavin’! Is that boy havin’ seizures? Coughin’ up blood again? Speakin’ in tongues?”
I started to sit up, but Mrs. Colt eased me back down. “Hush, now,” she said in a low voice. “Drink some more of this.” She tipped a small tablespoon up to my lips. It was filled with a bitter liquid, and I winced at its sour taste. “You need your rest,” she added.
I’m going to kill John Truman if it’s the last thing I do, I thought. Kill him dead. The room began to swim around again, with the faces of Mr. & Mrs. Colt going out of focus and then getting dimmer. Their voices echoed and swirled, and I descended back into a haze.
§ § § § §
“It’s been damn near a day and a half, ya know,” said Mr. Colt, snapping his pocket watch shut. “I know you think you ain’t up to it, Jason, but a growin’ boy like you... you gotta go to school.”
I shook my head. “No,” I said, as loudly as I could with my rough, frog-like voice. “Just let me go back to the barn and live up in the hayloft. The doctor says there’s no infection, and I don’t mind the cold. I’ll bundle up.” Wells had stitched up my throat the day before, and I was recovered to the point that I could breathe normally through my nose and mouth and communicate without whispering, though my voice was still scratchy and raw. I inspected my face in a handheld mirror. There was an ugly fist-sized purple welt right where my throat met my upper chest, and I also still had a black eye, along with a jagged star-shaped scar just above my sternum — a permanent reminder of the worst night of my life.
Colt leaned over. “I been through this before,” he said in a low voice. His breath stank. “Sheriff Baxter don’t take kindly to boys playin’ hooky. There’s laws in this county aging’ it.” He wagged his finger at me. “And you know I ain’t a man that cottons to misbehavior.”
“Don’t forget I’m your partner in this farm,” I hissed. “Two thousand acres of my Aunt Olivia’s property, still in my name. I haven’t signed it over to you yet. And that’s worth thousands of dollars.” Plus $800 cash in the bank, I thought.
The man lowered his hand and raised an eyebrow. “That’s so, that’s so,” he replied coolly. “But I’m still the adult here, and you ain’t of age. Until you’re 18, you gotta get yerself educated. Long as you can still walk and your arms move, that is.”
“I’ll help you get ready, Jason,” said Mrs. Colt, bustling through the doorway. “I brought your clothes in from the barn. And look! Why, here you are in the newspaper!”
She handed me yesterday’s edition of the St. Louis Globe-Diplomat, which was folded over to page 6. There was a small headline: “Tragedy Strikes! Local Boy Injured in Melee at Festival — Nearly Dies After Being Struck in Throat.” Below it was a reproduction of the inked portrait Faith had drawn of me singing on stage.
“Great,” I croaked. “Now I’m immortalized in history as a cripple.”
“Ya can still walk, boy,” barked Mr. Colt, as he yanked off the bed covers. “Your legs are right as rain. Get your fanny up and get dressed.”
“I’ll help him,” called Travis, who brought in my boots. “I’ll take the wagon in and drop Lem off at the element’ry school. Don’t worry — I’ll see to it that he gets to Mr. Twitly’s class, sir.”
“You’d damn well better,” Colt called over his shoulder, as he left the room. “Else I’ll be cuttin’ two sets o’ switches tonight!”
“Thanks loads,” I muttered, as I pulled off my bed clothes and wriggled into my jeans.
“You don’t never wanna get on Colt’s bad side,” the boy warned in a low voice, helping me with my shirt.
“Does he have a good side?”
Travis shook his head. “Not that I ever seen. Don’t cause no trouble — it’ll only make things worse.”
“They can’t possibly be any worse than they are right now,” I said, my voice rough and raw, then let out a strangled sob as I half-fell, half-sat back down on the bed and put my face in my hands. For the first time since the fight, tears flooded from my eyes as the enormity of my situation sunk in. I was stuck 150 years in the past, my throat hurt like hell, and now I could barely speak, let alone sing. And I was surrounded by backwoods idiots. I was wracked with sobs. I think this was the first time I had cried — really cried — since my father had died more than six months ago, back home in Seattle.
“Listen to me, now,” Travis said in a low voice, as he glanced around to make sure his parents were nowhere near, then sat next to me. He put his arm around me and gripped my shoulder. “Ya know how I feel about ya. Why, there ain’t nothin’ you can do if’n ya put your mind to it! That’s what my daddy used to say — my real father, that is.”
I snapped, “Yeah, but look what happened to him,” but instantly regretted it. Travis let my insensitive remark pass and held me tight.
“Don’t. You’re the only good thing I got in my life right now, Jason. Just stick with goin’ to school for now. Things are bound ta get better — I just know they will. And there’s a whole lot more to you than just your voice. Especially to me.”
Travis’ expression was so kind, his eyes shining with affection, a part of me melted.
“Alright,” I rasped, wiping my nose with the back of my hand. “Alright — for today. But... no guarantees.”
“Good enough,” he said. And we made our way out to the wagon.
§ § § § §
I managed to survive in Twitly’s class until almost noon. And that’s when things took a turn for the worse.
“We are on chapter six of Mister Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield,” the teacher said in a loud voice. “Please take out your books and turn to page 124.”
There was a flurry of activity in the class and the thumping of books. Twitly glared at us, then looked into his notes, scanning his finger down the list. “Alright. Now, Mister... Mister Thomas. Will you please do us the honor of reading the first five pages?”
My face reddened. “I... I...” My voice suddenly honked, then I coughed a few times. Some of the other students tittered. “I can’t speak very well,” I rasped. “I had an... an accident last Saturday night.”
Twitly seemed indifferent. “We’re all aware of that, Mr. Thomas. Come up here and stand in front of the class. Read as best you can, boy.”
I shot him the angriest glance I could muster, and briefly considered hurling the book into his face — and this was the 1850 hardback edition, which weighed a good solid three or four pounds — but I thought better of it. I trudged down the aisle and stood in front of the class and cleared my throat.
“Chapter Six...” I began, my voice giving a slight honk. “I enlarge my circle of acquaintance. I had led this life about a month, when the man with the wooden leg...”
“Louder!” Twitly shouted, as he walked to the back of the classroom.
I took a deep breath. “...when the man with the wooden leg began to stump around with a mop and a bucket of water, from which I inferred...”
“Can everyone hear him clearly?” Twitly asked.
One girl in the third row shook her head. A smaller boy piped up. “I can hear alright.”
“I cannot,” said Twitly. “Have you read the material before, Mr. Thomas?”
I briefly considered telling him I saw the old British B&W film on DVD back in 7th grade, but rejected it. “Yes,” I lied. “But my voice...” I was suddenly overcome with a fit of coughing and turned away, holding on to the teacher’s desk for support. As I finished, I noticed with a shudder that there were several droplets of blood on my hand, remnants from my throat wound.
“Can’t you see he’s hurt?” shouted Travis, as he sprang to his feet. “His throat’s all cut up! He dang near died Saturday night!”
“Calm down, Mister Colt,” the teacher snapped, waving him away. “Alright, Jason, take your seat. In fact, you and Miss Collier change places. I’ll have you sit in the front of the row so that I can hear you more clearly at my desk.”
I did as he asked, trudged forward a few steps, flung the book a little harder than I intended onto the desk, then sat down and glared at the teacher.
As the loud crash of my book dissipated, the classroom got uncomfortably quiet. Twitly narrowed his eyes.
“And detention for you after school, Mr. Thomas.”
I winced. I hope he doesn’t ask me to sing the Star Spangled Banner.
§ § § § §
After I’d spent almost an hour banging erasers, scrubbing down blackboards, cleaning school desks, and sweeping floors, Twitly seemed satisfied with my work. Promptly at 4:30, he nodded. “Off with you,” he said with a vague flick of the wrist, not even looking up from his work. “Don’t forget Copperfield chapter seven for tomorrow.”
“Can’t wait,” I muttered, as I made my way down the hallway. Travis and Lem had already gone home, since both had chores waiting for them back at the farm. I could borrow the wagon again from McBillin’s store if I walked the half-mile further into town, or I could just walk home.
As I mulled over my options, I passed by the vacant classroom where we’d rehearsed our recital the week before. I peered inside to discover a different piano now occupied the back of the room, a replacement for the one that was dropped on Saturday afternoon; this one was a newer Steinway Baby Grand, which I knew must have cost a small fortune, even in 1864. I couldn’t help myself. I looked around, then made my way inside, sat down and opened up the keyboard. It was in great shape, a sleek, shining ebony-black instrument, hardly different from a modern piano from my own time. I tentatively hit a few keys, then broke out into a wide grin as the notes reverberated against the empty classroom walls. It had a beautiful tone, light-years better than the old church upright, and the keys and pedals had a great feel. Perfectly in tune, too.
I thought for a moment, then sat down and began playing the middle section of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which had been one of my mother’s favorites. My father was more like me, a classic rock and pop guy, but she was mostly classical. They fought on quite a few issues over the years, everything from politics to finance, but Gershwin was the one thing they could always agree on when it came to music, and I knew the piece backwards and forwards. I leaned into it, speeding up the tempo a bit, and adding little flourishes on the runs and fills, then came to the climax, which I attacked with frenzy.
“Bravo!” said a voice, with a few half-hearted hand-claps. I looked up and was surprised to see it was Twitly, who now had on his coat and hat and carried a small briefcase. He walked over and leaned on the piano. “That was actually quite beautiful, Mr. Thomas. What do you call it?”
“Gersh—” I began, then was overcome by a fit of coughing. “Sorry. It’s by George Gershwin,” I croaked. “He’s... he’s big where I come from.”
“Haven’t heard of him. But Mozart,” he said, sitting on the edge of the stool and wagging his index finger for emphasis, “Mozart was a genius.”
I grinned, then played the first few measures of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” from Sonata Number 8. “Beethoven was more my style,” I rasped. “More emotion.”
Twitly surprised me: he closed his eyes, leaned back slightly, and conducted his right hand along with the melody. “Yes,” he said. “Also a genius. Very much so.”
I played a little more, then switched to Grieg’s “Concerto in A Minor.” “I had to learn this one for a contest a year ago,” I said hoarsely.
Twitly smiled again and nodded. After a minute, I got to the end of the movement and paused.
The man raised his eyebrows, clearly impressed. “I’m astounded that you could do all of that from memory.”
I shrugged. “I had to perform the last one for a classical showcase at my school last year,” I said with a slight wheeze. “Took me a couple of weeks to get it down, but I’ve got a knack for it.”
Twitly hesitated, then spoke. “I’m sorry if I was hard on you back in the classroom earlier this morning,” he said.
“Torturing me, you mean,” I said bitterly. “It’s like kicking a cripple.”
He shook his head sadly, then sighed. “You think you’re the only one who’s ever had to overcome personal tragedy?” He held out his left hand, and I was stunned to see that the lower two fingers were missing, and the middle finger was slightly deformed, as if badly burned. “This happened to me when I was in a train accident many years ago, slightly younger than you. Terrible experience, back in Suffolk, Virginia in 1837. Claimed the life of my brother and sister.” He paused and leaned forward. “But I survived.”
I was stunned. I had never even noticed the teacher’s missing fingers, then recalled that Twitly always strolled around the classroom carrying a book or papers in that hand. This perfectly concealed his disfigurement.
“But at least you can speak,” I rasped, my fingers lightly touching the stitches on my throat.
“The loss of a few fingers may not seem important,” he said, “but it was very difficult for me over the years. People can be very cruel, especially children. But eventually I got my life back to normal. Well, except for this,” he said indicating the keyboard. He played a few chords with his right hand, but then held out his disfigured left and smashed the keys with frustration. “Useless. My days at the piano were taken from me.” He leaned back and shook his head.
“But I can barely speak!” I cried with a slight honk, then slammed the keyboard lid shut with a loud bang and stood up. “It’s not the same thing! Even if my voice comes back, it’ll never be like it was! I’ll never be able to sing again!” I coughed again, panting for breath and glaring at him.
Twitly sighed, then his face softened. “Listen to me, Jason. You still have very real musical talent. I saw you sing with Faith at the recital on Saturday night, but your artistry at the piano was equally good. Don’t let this setback affect your ability to survive and learn in the world. I believe you’re far wiser than that.”
I turned away, my eyes filling with tears.
“Think about it,” he called over his shoulder, as he grabbed his hat and briefcase on the way out the door. “You’re a bright young man who still has your whole life ahead of you. Use your talents wisely.”
I will, I thought, watching him leave the doorway. And the first thing I’m going to do is to kill John Truman.
§ § § § §
“I don’t get it,” Travis said the next day, as we walked deeper into the woods on the south side of the Colt farmland. “Why in tarnation are ya interested in shootin’ now?”
I shrugged and kept my raspy voice nonchalant. “You said it before: all I know is city-boy stuff. If I’m living on a farm with you and Lem, I may as well learn how to be a real farm boy. You’re out here every few days, shooting rabbits and deer. Maybe I can help.”
Travis gave me an odd look, then thought better of it and nodded. “Alright. We’ll start with the basics.”
Over the next hour, he explained all the subtleties of loading, aiming, shooting, and cleaning the lever-action Henry .22 rifle. Apparently, this weapon was what a lot of Union soldiers were using in the war against the south. Travis explained the differences between a musket, which had to be loaded manually, vs. a modern rifle like this, which used a self-contained bullet. Apparently, this 1864 model was the latest and greatest, Mr. Colt’s pride and joy.
“The Henry ain’t exactly got a lot o’ range,” Travis said, as we lay up against a fallen log at the edge of a clearing, “but if’n you’re real quiet, ya can still bring home supper. Like that rabbit over yonder.”
“Where?” I rasped, with a slight cough.
Travis shusshed me. “Right under the tree, that bush on the left.” He handed me the rifle and pointed to a spot about two hundred feet away, his voice low. “That’s it. Balance it on your arm. Aim careful. Hold your breath, then when ya got it in your sights, count to three and slowly squeeze the trigger. Don’t rush.”
I did as he said, and was nearly knocked on my ass by the recoil. My ears rang from the explosion, which echoed around the forest. Travis peered over the log and grinned. “Well, ya shoulda aimed for the head, but ya got it. Mom’ll be pleased we got somethin’ for supper. Let’s go get some more.”
By sunset, I’d managed to snag two, but missed several others. Travis got three, so we had a total of five in his burlap sack. “More’n enough for rabbit stew for today and tomorrow.”
I made a face, distracted by a mental image of Bugs Bunny in an oven. “I’ll see if I can bring home some fresh beef from the butcher. I’m in the mood for a hamburger.”
“Those’re good, too,” Travis said with a laugh, giving my back a light slap. “And you might just make a durn good hunter, yet. For a city boy, that is.”
I’ll do just that, I thought. I began to formulate a plan on how I’d kill Truman. By Thursday, I’d managed to figure out where the boy lived, which class he went to — he went to the same school as Lem, just two grades higher, age 13 — and who his friends were. John Truman was a farmboy, like Travis and Lem, but the Truman family owned much more property about five miles east, out on Oakridge Trail a mile or so from the Missouri River port at Hayden Field. I’d been in that area once before with Travis when we watched the steamboats go by from a nearby hill.
I spent the next couple of days plotting when and where to strike. Late Friday afternoon, I was working behind the counter at McBillin’s General Store, adding up the last few items for a plump woman carrying an infant.
“Six dollars and...” I coughed a few times, “six dollars and forty-five cents.”
“My, you really should get that looked after, young man,” she said. “Catch your death.”
“I’m not sick,” I said hoarsely. “Got punched in the throat.” I tipped my head back slightly and the woman’s eyes widened at the bruise marks and my stitches. I gave her the change and she quickly scurried away with her groceries.
“Yer scarin’ the customers away again, lad,” warned McBillin, as he dropped a small crate of supplies. “I think the lady was only tryin’ to show ya some sympathy.”
“What, because I’m a cripple?” I snapped.
McBillin eyed me and started to respond, then thought better of it and busied himself with checking the inventory under the counter.
I heard a small disturbance in the far right aisle and looked up. It was a middle-aged woman with a drab purple dress and white lace frill, and two children in tow. One was about five or six and whining at the top of his lungs about how he wanted some sweets; the other boy was taller, probably about my height, but a little thinner. He turned and I was stunned to see it was John Truman, in the flesh!
I felt a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. I could kill the pimply-faced bastard right now, I thought quickly. But I can’t get my hands on a gun fast enough to take him out right here in the store. I had no choice but to wait.
I ducked behind the curtain in the storeroom and peered around the edge, watching them from a distance. “No, you can’t go with your brother to Hayden Field tomorrow,” the mother admonished the smaller boy. “I want you home to help your father with the horses. With Jenny right ready to foal, your Pa’ll be needin’ all the assistance he can get.”
“Aw, momma...” the boy whined.
“I’ll be back by 11 in the mornin’,” the older Truman boy said. From their brief conversation, he was apparently delivering some supplies at the dock to help out his uncle’s shipping business, then walking home.
I nodded, my fists tightening. This was perfect. There were only two routes that went to Hayden Field, and I knew both of them. The one that led to the Truman farm was easy, less than three miles from the edge of the Colt property on the south side. With luck, I thought, I could shoot him out in the woods and then bury the body — just like Tony Soprano. No muss, no fuss.
“What you doin’?” said a familiar voice behind me.
I turned to find Rufus, giving me an odd look. “You done spyin’ on Mas’ McBillin?”
“No, no,” I said in a rough voice. “Just taking a quick break.”
“Throat still sore?”
I nodded and looked away.
The large man gripped my shoulder. “You need somethin’ pos’tive in your life, son. If’n you want, you come by the Gospel Hall Church on Sunday. Pastor Meachum’ll set you right.” His eyes looked sorrowful. “I know you done lost your voice. But you’ll see: miracles do happen, they surely do.”
I didn’t reply. Instead, I turned back to watch the customers line up at the back-counter register. The only miracle I hoped for was one clean shot right in the back of John Truman’s head.
§ § § § §
Saturday morning I rose early. Mrs. Colt generally slept a little later on Saturday morning, since the boys had no school and didn’t have chores until about 8AM. I dressed quickly and exited the barn towards the farmhouse, with just enough light to illuminate the path that led to the back porch and the kitchen door. I brought along a brass canteen I had bought for 25 cents from McBillin’s store. I filled it with well water at the cast iron pump by the side of the house, then cautiously entered the kitchen door, cursing the hinge for its loud creak. I grabbed a stale sourdough roll from the breadbox along with a chunk of cheese and slipped them into a pocket of my blue North Face backpack, which I slung over my head, wincing slightly as one strap brushed against my wounded neck.
As I started to leave the kitchen, I spotted a small round bottle half-hidden on a kitchen shelf. The Absinthe, I thought, my heart beating a little faster. My throat wound was hurting a little bit, so I figured what the hell — there were only a few drops left anyway. I swallowed the last of the bitter greenish fluid, knowing the effects would dull the pain in just a few minutes, then carefully slid the now-empty bottle back, hoping that Mrs. Colt would forget how much she had given me last night.
I crept into the living room and slid open the side cabinet, which held Mr. Colt’s gun collection. The three on the left were old Enfield muskets — I bet they’d be worth a fortune back home on eBay — the next was a Springfield rifle, which Travis had warned me had a bad gun sight, and the one on the far right was the Henry, distinguished by its gleaming brass-plated sides. The drawer on the right held the .22 shells; I grabbed six, though in truth I planned only for a double-tap: one in the head, one in the chest. With luck, I could have the rifle back by 6PM. I knew that Saturday was the day Colt, Travis, and Lem generally spent weeding and planting, so chances were nil that any of them would need the rifle.
This will work, I assured myself, my hands trembling slightly as I slipped the shells into my pocket and hefted the rifle onto my shoulder. I left a note on the kitchen table explaining I had gone off to McBillin’s store for an early-morning inventory and wouldn’t be back until late afternoon, but would bring back some beef for dinner. I crept out the back door and walked past the side of the farmhouse, careful to make as little noise as possible.
The day was already lighter; my watch indicated it was almost 6:05, which was right about the time Mrs. Colt usually rose. I left McBillin’s wagon where it was, making sure that Dandy had his morning feed. As I reached the picket fence, I turned around and glanced back at the farmhouse. For some reason, the Colt’s place looked sadder and more dilapidated than usual; maybe I was seeing it for the way it really was, a crumbling rustic Missouri farmhouse made of clapboard and tin.
I felt a little dizzy, as the effects of the pain medicine sank over me like a pleasant veil. Yes, I thought, suddenly calm. Killing Truman made perfect sense. Wisps of fog hovered over the withered dead grass, and the pale morning light gave the house an eerie bluish tinge, like something out of a serial killer movie: sinister, forlorn, and abandoned. I shook my head to clear it, then made my way out to the muddy path that led to the Old Country Road and deeper into the forest on the southeast side.
§ § § § §
“This is taking far too long,” I muttered out loud. I had crouched behind a tree at the very back of the clearing for the better part of two hours, giving me a wide view of the main trail path that led from the Truman farm. The early morning fog had been surprisingly thick when I’d first arrived, but now it was fading as the sun began burning it off. I glanced at my watch for the eighteenth time: already 9:15. “Where are you already, you little shit?” I said through clenched teeth, a little too loudly.
Right on cue, I saw a shape enter the clearing from a hundred yards away, rolling a cart filled with supplies and boxes, and my heart leapt. Could it be? I kept the gun barrel down low and inched my head over the edge of a fallen tree trunk. I sank back down and sucked in my breath. Yes, it was John Truman, right where I had expected him to be. Should I shoot him now? My heart was hammering. No — better let him at least make the delivery to his uncle at the riverboat, then kill him on the way back.
I leaned back, knowing the greenery around me would provide perfect cover. My stomach growled. I scattered a few stray ants off my backpack and grabbed the bread roll and made a quick cheese sandwich. An Egg McMuffin it wasn’t, and it needed some mayo, but it’d get me by. I stuffed the last pieces of the sandwich in my mouth, then waited twenty more minutes — still no sign of him returning. Just as I was beginning to wonder if Truman had taken a different route home, I heard someone whistling in the distance. Alright, I thought, reaching for the rifle. This is going down.
I took my position, leaning on my chest, my legs straight behind me. I cocked the hammer and took aim towards the far right of the clearing. The boy was taking his time, stopping for a moment to tie his shoe, then continuing along the trail. I knew the range of the rifle wasn’t that great, but I was confident from my practice the day before that I could at least hit his body and bring him down. That would give me more than enough time to reload for a second shot to the head.
“Damn,” I said out loud, mentally smacking my forehead. I’d forgotten to bring a shovel. I’d need that to dispose of the body. It’d be tacky to just leave him lying there in the dirt. I wasn’t planning to stay in St. Louis much longer, but I didn’t want to be grabbed by the sheriff before I even made it out of town. Better to have John Truman just disappear than be found too soon.
I aimed again at the moving figure. “That’s it,” I whispered, as his head appeared precisely in the notch of the sight. “Five more seconds, and I’ve gotcha.” I remembered the lyric from an old Eminem song: “You better never let it go... you only get one shot... this opportunity comes once in a lifetime.” Ain’t that the truth.
I held my breath. The boy whistled happily, completely unaware that his head was going to explode in a matter of moments. I began to squeeze the trigger, just as Travis had taught me, but my hand was shaking. NOW! I was screaming inside my head. DO IT NOW!
Still I hesitated. My vision was suddenly clouded with tears, or maybe it was just sweat... it was hard to say, since this November morning was unusually humid, a remnant of the storm from the previous few days. But I had to do it. I swept the moisture from my face with my left hand and aimed again. My trigger finger trembled.
Suddenly, a twig snapped behind me, then a foot nudged my leg. “Put it down,” said a low voice. “Don’t do it.”
It was Travis.
“I’ve got to,” I said, my eye glued to the gunsight, quickly repositioning the rifle. “I’ve got to kill him.”
“Ya can’t,” he said calmly. “Ain’t fair sneakin’ up on the enemy.”
I rolled over. “It is in war!” I hissed. “And that asshole out there deserves what he gets!”
Before I knew it, Travis had ripped the rifle out of my hands and shoved me back down in the dirt with his foot. In one quick motion, he ejected the round, letting it thump to the ground.
He sat down beside me, and I began to sob. “I have to kill him,” I said hoarsely, pounding the ground with my fist with anger. “Don’t you see? It’s not fair.”
In the distance, I heard the Truman boy disappear into the brush at the far side of the trail, still whistling happily, utterly oblivious of his narrow escape. Maybe there was still time left to reach him from the other side of the forest, I thought frantically.
“You ain’t no killer,” Travis said. “I know you.”
“Under the right circumstances, anybody can be a killer!” I cried. “If you lost your fucking leg, I bet you’d wanna kill the guy who did it to you!”
“Reckon so. But only if we were fightin’ on the battlefield, man to man.”
“You’re not a man.”
Travis grinned. “Close enough. Come on.” He pulled me up to my feet. “Colt’ll kill us both if he finds us out here,” he said, handing me my backpack as he pushed me towards the path. “And he’d do it with his bare hands.”
“How’d you get here?” I asked, as a large brush scratched past my right shoulder. “How’d you even know where I was?”
He shrugged. “I thought somethin’ was fishy on Wednesday when ya wanted the shootin’ lessons. When you left the wagon behind, I figgered you had other plans for the mornin’. I guessed right, is all.”
I half-slid, half-fell down a mud slope to the hard clay trail, pulling my backpack up onto my shoulder. “How’d you find me?”
“Saw your tracks. Have to be a dang fool not to see all the bushes and branches ya bent back and the grass and mud ya walked through on the way over. It’s easy to track most anythin’ when it’s been rainin’ the night before.”
I stopped and glared at him. “You should’ve just let me kill him.”
Travis shook his head adamantly. “You ain’t no kind o’ murderer, Jason. I know you.”
“You know what I used to be,” I said hoarsely, my throat already aching. “Truman deserves to die for what he did to me.”
Travis began walking and I ran to catch up to him. “Ain’t his time,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Fate decides when you’re supposed to die — not you or me. Ain’t no gettin’ around destiny.”
I glared at him. “So it was fate that took my voice away?”
“Who’s to say it won’t come back?” he said, idly grabbing a weed and sticking it in the side of his mouth. “Fate took my brother away in the war. He’s dead, no matter what my ma thinks. You, Lem, an’ my ma are all I got left now. Colt don’t count.”
The crickets and cicadas were chirping loudly and a riverboat blew its whistle in the distance to the east. I mulled over what he said, and my shoulders slumped in defeat. “I’m sorry,” I said, coughing for a moment and clearing my throat, which was rasping again. “I guess that’s true for me, too... even though I never really had a brother. I’m just an only child.”
Travis thought for a moment, then came to a sudden stop. “Gimme your knife,” he ordered.
“What?” I protested. “I’m not gonna try to stab him now.”
He held out his hand and snapped his fingers impatiently. I reached in my pocket and reluctantly handed over my pocket knife. I watched as he clicked it open, then deftly made a small slit on his right thumb.
“What the hell are you doing?” I said, taken aback.
“Now gimme your hand,” he ordered.
“What — you gonna cut my fingers off? So I can be like Twitly?”
Travis held my thumb in his left while he made a tiny incision with his right, and I sucked in my breath. He then snapped the knife shut and carefully placed our two thumbs together, a little trickle of blood oozing out.
“Ow,” I muttered. “There’s no possible way this is medically sterile.”
He held our thumbs together tightly. “I declare Jason Thomas an’ Travis Finnigan Colt to be blood brothers. Official-like.”
I looked into his eyes, which seemed bluer than ever. “Blood brothers?”
Travis grinned. “Yeah.” He pulled me closer and gave me a deep kiss. “From here on.”
I leaned over and he wrapped his muscular arms around me.
lyrics excerpted from
Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”
written by Jeff Bass, Marshall Mathers, and Luis Resto
©2002 Eight Mile Style Music
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