14 August 2009

"Don't Fence Me In"

By Curtis C. Chen

Horace always stayed indoors. The bullet couldn't find him if he was inside a house, or a tipi, or a stagecoach. That was part of the curse. He couldn't do what he'd come out west to do—explore the frontier.

He always wanted to hear the stories the scouts and prospectors and homesteaders brought into my saloon. He didn't much care if they were true or not. He missed being out there himself.

I don't know what Betty ever saw in him, but I never could figure women. I noticed she hung around Horace more than usual that summer, but I just figured she wanted the other drunks to keep their hands off her. At least Horace tipped his hat to her once in a while.

She cried for a week solid when he disappeared. She didn't tell anyone else she was with child until she couldn't hide it anymore. Then she came to me for help, and I could never say no to her.

We got hitched before she delivered. She named the boy Joseph, after me, but he had Horace's eyes.

Ten years on, the last thing I expected to see was Horace rolling into town on the Black Hills Central. When he started to step off the train, I ran up to stop him—out of habit, I suppose. He laughed and pointed to the safe being unloaded from the baggage car. He said that particular problem was all taken care of now.

Horace bought a fancy steak dinner for me and Betty and Joseph while his men moved his belongings into a hotel room. He told us stories about the west coast. I drank more than I probably should have. Joseph kept staring at Horace, as if he could sense something. Betty didn't say a word.

I don't blame her for what happened. She never could think straight when it came to Horace, but I should have known he would never come back just to visit an old friend. Now I wonder when he first came up with his plan to break the curse.

After dinner, Horace said he had something for Joseph. Betty took the boy upstairs while I finished my whisky. When I heard Betty screaming, I stumbled out of my chair and ran to Horace's room.

He was already gone. Betty was on the floor, holding Joseph's body, her dress stained with his blood. Horace's safe stood open in the corner. The inside was dented and scratched from God knows how many months of that magic bullet banging around.

The bullet wasn't chasing Horace anymore. He'd given it another target. He probably felt pretty damn clever. There was an instant when I might have forgiven him, might have thought it was an accident, but then I saw what was still in the safe.

The note was addressed to me, and all Horace had written was "Sorry about your boy." Underneath it was more cash than I'd ever seen anywhere outside of a bank vault.

It wasn't enough. Nothing in the world would have been enough.


Audio: "Don't Fence Me In"

From the "You Can't Copyright a Title" file: David Byrne does a wicked cover of this Cole Porter tune on the tribute/benefit album Red Hot + Blue.

Music: 'Acoustic Guitar,' 'Mandolin,' and 'Slide Guitar' stems from "I Crush Everything" by Jonathan Coulton, licensed under Creative Commons.


Take Me Out to the Black

Tell 'em I ain't comin' back. Et cetera. (Also: "BAM," said the lady!)

My first draft of this week's story was just over 1,200 words, and it was much better than this stripped-down version. (Except for the title: "Magic Bullet." My wife agrees on both counts.) I'll be revising and submitting that longer tale soon.