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Red Valley – Chapter IX

Excited to announce that LP has made the semi-finals (top 20) of this year’s Cinequest Screenwriting Competition. Next we’ll find out if I made the top 10. Here’s to hoping!

Starting to feel burnt out on this project but I am already about half way done. This will be the shortest book ever. Shorter than a novella I’m guessing.

IX

Richmond was a tough town with tough people. It was a hive for outlaws and bounty hunters and at one time West and Charlie might have fit right in, but now they were outsiders and they knew it. It was really the last place they should be stopping, but they’d rode all through the night and they needed a rest and a drink.

They hitched their horses outside The Spirit Room. It was a nice mid-sized dive and had fewer holes in its walls than Molloy’s and West thought that was just class. As they dawdled up the porch they noticed the proprietor, a tall, lanky fella, hanging a wanted poster on the front of the building. West stopped and looked at the poster. He didn’t need to be able to read to know what it said:

“WANTED – WEST STEEL: BACK FROM THE DEAD – ALIVE – $1000 DEAD – $750”

West turned his head towards the proprietor until the lank felt his gaze and turned around. When he noticed West and recognized who he was his eyes went big and he let out a guilty little chuckle and he removed the wanted poster with haste. West strode into The Spirit Room without taking his eyes off the tall sheepish man, a scare tactic that never got old. Charlie followed him inside and the proprietor scurried in after them and assumed his position behind the bar.

The Spirit Room was crowded and noisy with gamblers and drunks and it was the last place either West or Charlie wanted to be. The proprietor introduced himself as Walter and asked how he could help them.

“Whiskey. Double.”

“Water. Thanks.”

Walter grinned apologetically.

“You don’t want the water here.”

“Sarsaparilla then.”

Walter smiled and bowed his head and went to work on their drinks. Charlie asked about an outhouse and Walter directed him outside. West slunked down into a seat at an empty table in the corner and sighed heavily. For a moment he started to think about Mary but he pushed her from his mind. Now was the time to plan. He could grieve later and, when the time came, he could use the rage when he needed it. West felt someone behind him and then he heard him speak.

“Well, well, well… Ol’ West Steel. The steel of the west.”

A delicate and dapper-looking young man took the seat across from West. He had patchy blonde scruff and he was dressed all in black with a bowler hat. “If he didn’t steal the west first.” Ansel grinned but West just stared at him.  “It’s a pleasure, it really is. And a shame.”

“And why is that?”

“Because you just became a living, breathing, wanted man again. And, while you are my hero, I wanna collect. Name’s Ansel Stone. Stone of the west.”

Ansel grinned and he was quite pleased, thinking himself clever. He removed his hat with one hand and produced a revolver in the other. He rested the gun on the table, aiming it at West, and covered it with his hat.

“You see this?”

West looked down at the gun and then up at Ansel. He was annoyed but passive.

“Well, you’re worth a thousand dollars alive. But you know what? Seven-fifty for ya dead ain’t bad either. I guess you could say I’m still makin’ up my mind as to what to do.”

A gun cocks and Ansel looks up to see Charlie standing behind him with a shotgun to his head.

“I suggest you put that gun away, son.”

Ansel gives West a defeated grin.

“Well, this is… rather unexpected. And utterly disappointing. I took you for someone who rode alone.”

“I said drop it.”

Ansel drops his gun down on the table, never taking his eyes off West.

“You’re welcome,” Charlie said, his tone sarcastic.

“Thanks,” West replied, meeting Charlie’s tone, as he reached up from under the table, holding a pistol of his own. Ansel was shocked.

“How long you had that pistol pointed at me?”

“Since you quoted that stupid shit about my name.”

“I’d kill to have people say things like that about me.”

“Yeah… Come back to me after you done the killin’. Now go on, get outta here, kid.”

Ansel walked out of the bar like a scolded dog and Charlie took his seat. They sat there a long moment, neither man touching his drink.

“Don’t bullshit me, Hank. You love all that West Steel mythology shit.”

“…I did…”

“It got Ol’ Joe killed.”

West looked at him a long moment before responding without conviction.

“Joe did what he did for the group. He was a ‘one for all’ kinda guy.”

“Bullshit. You coulda easily been the one to go out there and them lawmen woulda stopped chasin’ us. Just like that. They was really only after you and you know it. You knew it then, too.”

West stared down into his drink.

“Y’know… I think about Joe every day, whether you believe it or not,” West said. “But right now… I’ve gotta be focused, because my guilt needs to be concentrated on Mary. And avenging her. And saving my little girl.”

“Don’t act like no good guy, Hank. You’re not.”

“Good guys and bad guys is bullshit. We all got good, and we all got bad, Chuck.”

“Well I have yet to see your good side. ‘West.’”

“…West Steel,” a shaky voice said. West and Charlie looked up, guns drawn, to see young Billy Douglas. Billy’s head was bowed and he looked worried, ready to accept punishment.

West stood so that he was eye-level with Billy. He looked at him with rage-filled intensity. West grabbed Billy by the throat and put his pistol to Billy’s head.

“Hank, what is this about?”

West tightened his grip around Billy’s throat.

“This boy told those animals where they could find me.”

“They made me do it. I had no choice.”

“Made you? They put a gun to your head?”

“Not exactly.”

Billy raised his right hand in the air and West and Charlie could see that he was missing his index finger.

So you lost a finger. Doesn’t change the fact that you went in there shoutin’ my name.”

You’re my hero. I was drunk and you’re my hero and I wasn’t thinking.”

“Hank. Don’t kill him,” Charlie pleaded.

“He’s responsible, Chuck. Stay out of it?”

“He’s as responsible as you are.”

West turned and tried to stare Charlie down but it was the first time Charlie matched his glare. West looked Billy over and, even though he’d never admit it, he knew Charlie was right. He gave Billy’s throat one last strong squeeze and then released him. Billy gasped for life as West lowered his pistol and sat back down. West refused to look at him.

“Now go on, boy, get out of here. I don’t want to see you ever again.”

“With all due respect, sir, I want to help you find the Sancheros.”

“You’re just a nigger with no trigger finger. You ain’t no help to me.”

“I’ve got a stake in this, too.”

West turned to Billy and Billy knew the discussion was over.

“I told you to get. I suggest you do unless you want me to rethink puttin’ a bullet in your head.”

Billy nodded his head that he understood and slowly backed away from the table and out of the bar, never taking his eyes off West. West and Charlie sat for a moment without speaking. Charlie had never gotten through to West before and he was feeling rather pleased. As if in a fit, West knocked his shot glass over onto its side and stood up.

“Let’s go.”

As West and Charlie exited The Spirit Room a rifle round rung out. They took cover against the walls of opposing buildings. Down the street Ansel Stone marched forward with a grin and a rifle.

Woo-ee, boys! Didn’t know you was gonna make it so easy for me!”

Charlie peeked out from his cover and took a shot but it didn’t even come close. All it did was make Ansel laugh and Charlie red. Another shot and another miss and another laugh from Ansel caused Charlie to curse his weapon.

“Great shot, Steel,” Ansel yelled, thinking West had been the one shooting, “guess you was just better at bein’ a name!”

West had an opening and he was about to take his shot but someone else fired first, putting a bullet into Ansel’s right shoulder. He screamed and West stood up and put a bullet in his heart. Ansel dropped to his knees as West came into view.

“I hate that name.”

Ansel face-planted into the dirt street and Charlie emerged from cover.

“Where did that other shot come from?”

“I don’t know.”

Billy stepped into view from behind Ansel and approached West and Charlie.

“I thought they took your trigger finger,” inquired West.

“On my right hand,” answered Billy.

West looked Billy over once more. The kid had sand.

“Let me help you.” But West just shook his head no. “I’m sorry for what they did to your family and I’m sorry I played a hand in it. Let me ride with you. Let me make it right.”

West turned away from Billy and started off back towards his horse.

“We got a lotta ground to cover before nightfall… let’s not waste anymore time.”

Charlie gave the kid a nod and a smile and Billy followed them to the horses.

Red Valley – Chapter VIII

Villains…

VIII

The canyons made for good hiding. The Sanchero brothers had discovered as much when they were boys and their father would take them camping. They’d hunt and they’d swim and they’d play as boys did. It was here where their father taught them how to shoot and use a knife. They would build fires and stay warm through the night and they were content living off the land. It was only natural then and barely a conscious decision to spend the night here.

The fire was good and the Sanchero gang sat around enjoying it. Chico played guitar and sang terribly off key. No one seemed to notice though. Especially Cullen, who was sitting back, his eyes glazed over from whatever opium cocktail he’d ingested. Juan was beating Francis so bad in cards that Francis threw his deck down and pulled a pistol from his trousers.

“Show me where you’re hiding those cards, goddammit!”

“Your playing does not require me to hide any cards. Now be a good boy and put that hand-cannon away.” Typically this would play out as some sort of drama, only these two didn’t have an audience, so they went back to playing.

All in all everyone warm and giddy. Ellie was not. She had been tied up with a thick rope and left on the ground away from the heat of the fire. She’d seen what they did to her mother and as she watched them laugh she couldn’t help but sob. The harder they laughed the harder she cried. She noticed Megedagik sitting by himself. He’d caught a coyote earlier and had roasted it over the fire and now he was sucking the skin from its bones. He felt Ellie’s gaze and so he glared at her, sending a chill down the child’s spine. He decided to give her a little show and ate like a savage. He let the juices drip down his neck and the meat fall out of his mouth and then he spit out some bone. Finally she looked away.

Robert just sat and watched the fire and chewed tobacco. He didn’t like talking and the guys knew it. But when he was really high, Cullen would forget.

“Roberto.”

Roberto turned and looked at him. This had better be important, he thought.

“If you don’t mind me askin’, why do we gotta drag this kid along?”

Roberto looked at him with childlike viciousness.

“I want him to hear her screams.”

“How do you know he’ll come?”

Roberto turned back towards the fire.

“Time and family and love has made him weak. But I don’t want to fight a broken man. As long as we have the girl – alive – he’ll be driven by rage. And when we’ve finally killed him, then we kill the girl. I’ll even let you do it.”

Cullen was taken aback. Even with how numb the drugs had made him he felt terror. Then Ellie’s voice cut through the camp.

“You’re not gonna hurt my daddy!”

Roberto calmly stood up, walked over to Ellie, and knelt down beside her until they were eye level.

“Oh, but I am, little girl. I’m gonna hurt your daddy just like I hurt your mommy.”

Ellie trembled as her eyes began to water but still she spoke.

“But my mommy and daddy never hurt anybody.”

Roberto was brought to his feet with laughter. The rest of the gang joined him.

“You hear that fellas? ‘My daddy never hurt anybody.’ Your daddy? Your daddy… little girl, do you even know who your daddy is?”

“Michael Crowley.”

“Ain’t that just a sweet, little lie. You have no idea who your daddy really is.”

“I just told you. His name is Michael Crowley. He’s a rancher.”

Roberto slowly shook his head.

“No… I mean, maybe now he’s a rancher. But he’s no Michael Crowley. Your daddy is a liar. Your daddy is a thief. And your daddy is a murderer. That’s who your daddy is.”

Roberto got real close to Ellie now and their faces almost touched.

“Your daddy… killed my daddy. That’s why we killed your mommy. That’s why we’re gonna kill him. And that’s why we’re gonna kill you”

Ellie’s eyes filled with rage and in that moment she looked more like her father than she ever did her mother and she spat in Roberto’s face. The gang laughed and this did not please Roberto. He stood up and kicked the little girl in the stomach. As she cried out in pain he spit his tobacco on her and walked back to the fire.

Red Valley – Chapter VII

Here we get Charlie’s true introduction. I think he’s a nice contrast to West. More than any other story I’ve written I feel like the characters in Red Valley all serve a purpose and truly have an arc for themselves. I hope it translates well.

 

VII

West approached Charlie’s house like a man on his way to a death sentence. The air was dry and the sky was gray and West felt it all very appropriate. He opened the fence and walked up to the porch but he didn’t knock. Instead he hesitated. He tried again but still couldn’t do it. He thought of Mary and Ellie and he cursed out loud. He shook his head and knocked on the door.

Elizabeth opened the door. It had been years since he’d seen her but she still looked the same, small and mousy with her hair pulled back, and that look of constant regret in her eye. She was shrouded in black and a cross hung around her neck and West now remembered how off-putting she was to him. But the same was true for the reverse and Elizabeth did not greet West. Instead she put her head down and wandered inside. She left the door open but the screen door closed. For a moment West wondered if he should follow but he decided it best to wait.

A moment or so later Charlie appeared in the doorway. He looked at West through the screen door and said nothing. West took a breath and waited for him to speak. He was trying his best to be polite and Charlie could sense that something was amiss.

“The hell do you want?”

“Can I come in?”

Charlie looked West over a long moment. He could see that West had been riding a while and eventually nodded his head, albeit begrudgingly. He gave the screen door a little kick and kept it open with the heel of his boot.

“Come on then.”

Numerous crucifixes of various sizes and styles lined the walls of the house and West remembered that Charlie always did have a religious streak and that he never cared much for that. West followed Charlie into the kitchen and Charlie took a seat at the table. West stood there for a moment and wondered. Finally he asked for a drink. Charlie told West that he didn’t drink anymore.

“You don’t keep nothin’ for a weary traveler?” Annoyed, Charlie asked him what he wanted and he told him a double. Charlie walked over to a little end table, knelt down and pulled a small decanter from inside. He poured one glass and handed it to West. “You’re gonna need one, too, Charlie.”
“I don’t drink anymore, Hank.” West nodded defeatedly and took a sip from the glass. Charlie placed the decanter on top of the end table and took a seat. He looked up at West and nodded to a chair but West still stood there. He tried to speak but the words wouldn’t come. He made one last attempt to persuade Charlie to have a drink. “Cut the shit, Hank, and tell me why you’re here.” West took a deep, sharp breath.

“It’s about Mary.”

Charlie shot up knocking his chair to the floor. He didn’t take his eyes off West for a second and prepared himself for what he was sure to follow.

“Jesus, Chuck… She’s gone. I’m so sorry, she’s gone.”

Charlie’s mouth stammered as his eyes filled with tears. His expression quickly changed from overwhelming grief to overwhelming rage. In a matter of moments Charlie was on top of West, hitting him across the face. West took every hit like a penance. Charlie’s arm got tired and he walked over to the end table and poured himself a shot and slammed it back. He took a breath, poured another, and shot that one back as well. Then he coughed. West stood up.

“You were supposed to protect her.”

“I know.”

Charlie pulled a pistol from under the table and put the barrel to West’s head.

“I oughta kill you right now.”

“They’ve got Ellie.” Charlie lowered the gun.

“What?”

“Whoever it was… they’ve got Ellie. They left a message…Sanchero, whatever the hell that means. Danny-Boy says it’s some gang out in Red Valley. I’m goin’ out there, I just… I thought it’d be right of me… to let you know about Mary.”

Charlie stared at West for a long moment and then proceeded out of the room. West stood there, puzzled, his head bowed in grief. He took a sip of his drink and by the time he finished it Charlie returned wearing a coat and hat and carrying a rifle.

“What do you think you’re doin’?”

“I’m going with you.”

“Like hell you are.”

“She was my sister, Hank. I’m going.”

“Charlie, this isn’t the reason I came here.”

“I know it.”

“I’m goin’ after these guys. All out. A farewell ride. I don’t think you got the stomach for this. Not then, definitely not now.”

“With all due respect, “West Steel”, Mary was my sister, and Ellie is my goddaughter. There’s no talkin’ me out of this.”

“…Fine,” West said, begrudgingly.

“And I also want you to know that when this is done, and we get Ellie back, I’m going to kill you.”

“You’re a terrible shot.”

Elizabeth sat on the edge of the bed and watched Charlie stuff clothes into a sack. She’d eavesdropped on his and West’s conversation and hadn’t spoken a word since. She’d always hated West. She found him to be the devil’s sort and deep down she always knew he’d be the one to rob her of her family. Charlie pulled their Bible from the nightstand and finally she spoke.

“I don’t want you going,” but Charlie did not respond. “Did you hear me?”

“Yes.” As Charlie pushed the Bible into his sack Elizabeth snatched it away and threw it across the room.

“Then look at me.” Charlie obeyed. She’d never seen his face so stern and she knew it was useless but still she pressed him. “I don’t want you to go.”

“I don’t have a choice.”

Of course you do. You’re not that man anymore. If you ever was. This is Hank’s life, not yours.” Charlie took a deep breath and looked at his wife with that same stern face.

“Mary’s gone. She’s dead. Not only did they kill her, they took Ellie. The only piece of her that’s left.” Elizabeth had tears in her eyes.

“And where does that leave me then? What about the choice to stay and be a husband? What then of your responsibilities?”

“I have a responsibility as that girl’s uncle and godfather.”

“If you go… You’re not coming back.” Charlie paused a moment and then continued to pack.

“You don’t know that.”

“You’re going out there with him.”

“Hank is a lot of things. He’s a survivor.”

“That’s Hank.” Charlie looked at her, indignant. “I’m too young to be a widow.” Charlie sighed and crossed the room. He took her in his arms and kissed her forehead and held her tight enough to break her.

“You ain’t gonna be no widow. Not for many, many years.” She looked at him now, scared to believe him, as if trusting in his return would prevent it. He broke her gaze and stood up and tied his sack closed and left the room. Elizabeth sank onto the bed and buried her face in her hands.

Charlie passed West in the hallway and West stopped him. “Chuck. You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to leave your wife.”

“You know where I stand.” Charlie pulled away and continued down the hall.

Charlie and West finished packing the horses as the sunset painted everything orange and yellow. Elizabeth watched through the screen door as West mounted his horse and Charlie looked back at her. She was scared that this would be the last time she’d see him alive, but his eyes – so strong and striking and sad – promised her otherwise. And she started to believe and it scared her all the more. Charlie mounted his horse and he and West started off.

West turned and gave Elizabeth a nod he hoped she’d understand. She understood, and she glared back at him.

Red Valley – Chapter VI

So right now I’m a solid chapter ahead a day. I hope I can keep up this pace but I already start feeling myself burning out. Let’s hope I can power through.

VI

It was early morning when West rode into Lockwood. It was a simple town with simple people and West hated seeing their stupid, simple smiles. He couldn’t even muster a tip of the hat and he knew he was making a bad impression but he didn’t care. He rode straight up to Molloy’s Tavern and hitched his horse outside. He dismounted and looked at the cemetery across the street from the bar. The headstones were like eyes watching him and it made him uneasy. He pushed the thought out of his mind and made his way inside.

West couldn’t help but notice how rundown the place had become. The ceiling dripped and there were holes in the wall from drunken brawls and West wondered if he’d made one of them back in his day. Back then, Molloy’s had been a happening locale. Maybe it still was, but on this morning it just looked sad and miserable. Jack, the town drunk, who was sitting at the bar didn’t help the vibe.

West was pleased to see that Danny-Boy had survived the old days and was still tending bar. Danny-Boy, on the other hand, turned pale when he saw West enter. He’d never fully believed the rumors of West’s death but he never fully questioned them, either. And now here he was, back from the dead.

“Well, well, well… Tell me. Do ghosts drink whiskey?”

“I ain’t here for a drink. I came for information.”

Danny-Boy smiled. It’d been a long time since they danced this dance.

“‘Ol’ West Steel, the steel of the west.If he didn’t steal the west first.’ You remember when people used to say that?” Jack picked his head up from his drink for the first time since West had entered and looked at him with morbid curiosity.

“I don’t go by West no more. Name’s Michael Crowley now.” Danny-Boy just nodded his head.

“Yes sir, Mr. Crowley.”

Jack raised his finger and hiccupped. “Mr. West — it’s a — pleasure. If I could — buy you a — drink — it’d be a real honor.” He extended his hand towards West but Danny-Boy swatted it away.

“Pipe down, Jackie. You can’t even pay your own tab.” Danny-Boy turned back to West, “So what do you need, Mr. Crowley?”

“You ever heard of anyone named Sanchero?”

“Sure. The Sanchero Gang. Had a few of their boys in here just the other night ‘causin’ all kinds of hell. Chopped off this nigger’s finger and cut up my damn bar,” he said, rubbing the bar lovingly with his fingers. “Wouldn’t you know it, one of ‘em put a gun to my head. I mean talk about rude. Back in your day, the bartender was off limits.”

“Bartender was never off limits.” Danny-Boy mustered a smile.

“Come to think of it… That’s right. You  – I mean, West Steel – was the top of conversation.” West’s eyes narrowed. “See this nigger came in braggin’ about how he’d stuck up the great West Steel. Only to have the gun turned on him. No one believed him so he kept talkin’. And then the Sanchero boys became aw-fully interested. Don’t tell me the Sancheros have come under the wrath of West Steel. Err, I mean, Michael Crowley.”

“Wrath would be putting it mildly.”

Danny-Boy’s face lit up and he smiled a wide toothy smile. “Well shit. West Steel, back in action! I mean if I’d known better–” West grabbed Danny-Boy by the collar and lifted him up over the bar.

“You’re gonna see the shit-side of my boot heel if you don’t call me Mr. Crowley.” West let him go and he straightened his tie and patted his shirt. His smile was gone now and he knew West meant business. “What else you know about these guys?”

“Just that they got a ranch like a fortress. Down in Red Valley.” West repeated the name and thought to himself for a moment.

“Charlie been in here lately?”

“No. He quit drinkin’ a while back. Damn fool. You gonna go see him?”

“‘Fraid I have to.”

Danny-Boy poured a shot of whiskey and nudged it towards West. “On the house.” West looked down at the shot a moment before slamming it back and heading out the door. “It was good seeing you again, Mr. Crowley!” West grunted a reply and disappeared.

Moments later a burly figure cut through the bar. Danny-Boy stood up straight and tried to keep his cool. “Big Marshal Long. Long time no see.”

“Well if you missed me so much, how ‘bout one on the house?”

“Sure. Sure.” Danny-Boy poured the marshal a whiskey and slid it over to him. The marshal shot it back, wiped his mouth with his arm and grinned.

“Word broke out a ways east that an old gunfighter has come back from the dead.”

“You believin’ ghost stories now, Marshal?”

“Well, for a thousand alive, can’t hurt to check every possible lead.”

“So why you here?” The marshal looked around the bar, taking it all in. The place wasn’t in great condition but it had character and he liked that.

“This used to be ol’ West Steel’s hangout, ain’t that right, Danny-Boy?”

“Used to be. He’s been gone for… Almost ten years now.”

“Eight. Never did have a look at the body. His ma and pa sure buried him awfully quick. I don’t reckon I ever believed the story of his death.” Marshal Long raised his pant leg and knocked on his wooden leg. “Summer of ’69, West Steel shot my calf straight off with a shotgun. I always regretted not bein’ able to be the one to kill him. I really do hope he is alive so I get my chance to shoot that fucker dead and piss on his corpse.”

Danny-Boy sheepishly nodded in the affirmative.

“Well that sure is a sad story there, Marshal, and I do hope you get your chance too, but if he is alive like you say, I don’t think he’d be dumb enough to come back here.”

Marshal Long shot Danny-Boy a wicked smile. He picked up his empty shot glass and shook it at Danny-Boy.

“How ‘bout another one. On the house, of course.” Danny-Boy let out a nervous chuckle.

“Between your shots and Jack’s I reckon I ain’t gon’ make no money today.”

“This man not payin’ his tab?” Marshal Long asked, pointing accusingly at Jack.

“He’s just a little behind but it’s nothin’ we–” Danny-Boy hadn’t even finished his sentence when Marshal Long gunned Jack down, nor had he the proper time to go into shock when Long grabbed him by the collar and held him over the bar.

“Now you listen, and you listen good, if you so much as hear a mention of the name “West Steel,” I wanna know about it, is that understood? Or you’ll end up like poor Jackie over there.” Danny-Boy nodded his head. “Good.”

Long walked over to Jack’s corpse and rummaged through his pockets. He found a dime and tossed it at Danny-Boy.

“Let’s call it even,” Marshal Long said with a laugh and walked out.

 

Red Valley – Chapter V

Before diving into another riveting *wank motion* chapter, I want to direct your attention here to my good buddy Chris Sakamoto’s and Sammy T’s new music video. Please give it a watch and vote for them on Twitter. Danka.

Now, without further ado *yet another hand wank*, Red Valley, chapter cinco.

 

V

West hated working in the fields. It was a slow go and he had little patience for it. If only he’d been smarter with his money when he had it. But then again, if he’d been smarter there wouldn’t have been any money at all.

Mary and Ellie made the work tolerable. Mary would sing hymnals and Ellie would hum along. The songs put West at ease. He could listen to their voices all day long, and some days he even found himself looking forward to the field work.

Just as I am – without one plea,” Mary sang, “but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bids me come to thee, O lamb of God, I come!” Mary didn’t know if she believed in god. Her whole life she’d been taught to, of course, and she did quite like the whole heaven bit, but something in her gut warned her against believing in happy endings. If there was a heaven, she thought, West would be the last one they’d allow in. And she’d be damned if she let that happen. “Juas as I am – though toss’d about, with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come!”

“Why do you sing that song, mommy?”

“She sings it for me, little darlin’,” answered West.

“For you?”

“Well… For my soul.” Ellie thought the answer over in her mind for a moment and it seemed satisfactory enough so she went back to humming. Mary looked over at West and the two looked at each other the only way a couple who’ve shared a valley’s worth of life together can look. And West smiled.

Ellie added to the moment by slinging a mud pie at West’s shirt. Mary tried unsuccessfully to hold back a laugh and this gave Ellie permission to giggle.

“Oh, now you’re gonna get it, young lady!” Ellie let out a squeal and started to make a run for it and West chased her around the field. “Come ‘ere!” Mary laughed. Watching West with Ellie had always been her favorite.

West approached Ellie with caution. She was holding a mud pie in the firing position. “Ellie Crowley, I’m tellin’ you right now, don’t you dare throw that mud–” But it was too late and the mud pie splattered across West’s face. Mary got a kick out of the whole thing and Ellie shrieked with delight. “Alright, alright. I’m goin’ to the creek to wash off, but when I get back, you’re in for it, missy.”

Down at the creek West washed his face. The cool blue water was a baptism and he stared down into it at his reflection. In the distance he could hear Mary’s voice singing one of her hymnals. He sat back on a rock and looked out over the view of the creek and let himself smile. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back and swayed to the melody of his wife’s voice. Suddenly Mary’s singing turned to screaming. He could hear Ellie screaming as well.

West scrambled up to the fields as fast as he could and called out to his girls.

“Mary! Ellie! Mary!” But there was no response. Still he tried, “Girls..!”

West heard a groaning noise, like something dying and he was afraid to look. When he did he saw Chief bleeding out, a bullet to his side. He put his hand on the dog and continued to search for the girls. He called their names several more times but no one responded.

“Oh no…” Mary’s body was near where he had left them. Her clothes were torn and blood-soaked and her throat was slit across. She’d been propped up against a wagon, and written across the wagon in her blood was SANCHERO. Behind her, their home was in flames. West ran over to her and fell to his knees and he held in her arms and rocked her back and forth. He’d always assumed it would be the other way around. He buried his face into her and he held her tight.

West’s mind turned to Ellie. He gently rested Mary’s body back down and called out for his daughter. Like before, Ellie didn’t call back. West retraced his steps and combed over the fields. Ellie wasn’t there, nor was she in the home or the barn. West took a breath. Panicking was no good. They’d killed his wife and now they had his daughter. He didn’t know them, but he knew they’d use live bait. He darted inside for an old oak trunk he’d sworn to Mary he’d thrown away and he hated himself all the more. From the trunk he pulled two pistols and a large buck knife and he grabbed the rifle off the mantle.

Bobby started down the path to the Steel farm. He was approaching the fields now and he was beginning to wonder where everyone was and why he could smell smoke. “Mr. Crowley! Mrs. Crowley! Ellie!” Nothing. He continued on until he heard wheezing and when he turned he saw Chief in his miserable state. The boy petted the dog in his final moments and then he summoned all the courage he had and ran deeper into the fields. He stopped when he saw Mary’s body and the wagon and the bloody scribble, and he was startled when he saw West emerge from the flaming house armed and cloaked in death.

West noticed Bobby and the two shared a look of recognition. There was no time to for explanations or comfort so West didn’t bother. He began loading up his horse when Bobby approached him.

“I’m coming with you, Mr. Crowley.”

“No.”

“I’m coming –”

“You’re staying here. You’re gonna take care of your ma. That’s an order, Bobby.” He mounted his horse and took one last look at Mary’s body. He was sorry that he wouldn’t be able to bury her but time was running out and he knew she’d understand. He looked down at the boy who was both terrified and in awe of him and he nodded and the boy nodded back.

He gave his horse a little kick and they started off down the road and Bobby couldn’t help but think that Mr. Crowley looked an awful lot like one of those cowboys from the dime novels.

Red Valley – Chapter IV

Here we go…

 

IV

West, Charlie, Bear, and Ol’ Joe busted through the cabin door. It was empty but they needed to move quick. The law was closing in behind them.

It had started out as Joe’s gang. He’d recruited them, showed them how to ride, taught them how to aim, but in the public’s eye, West was the leader. He was tall dark and brooding and he didn’t speak much, but his brand of violence and cunning had made him a celebrity. They’d even written a song about him. Ol’ Joe knew his time was coming and he’d been grooming West to take over anyway. It was only natural.

Charlie was more refined and would have fit in perfectly on the east coast. His soft features and delicate hands made him the pretty boy of the gang, and had he struck out on his own he would have never been taken seriously. But Charlie was smart and he knew this. Bear was most fitting of his name. He was a large man with a large personality and he was just as quick to laugh as he was to gun you down. Ol’ Joe’s bones were getting stiff and it was clear who would succeed him.

“Shit. There’s nearly twenty of ‘em.”

“And they’re comin’ fast.”

Bear checked his gun. “Fuck! I’m out.”

“Me too. West?” West nodded his head.

“Fuck.”

“I got some scratch, boys.” Ol’ Joe always had scratch.

“Lotta good one gunman’s gonna do.”

Ol’ Joe noticed a cellar hatch in the floor. He looked to West.

“Now I want you boys to get along and meet me by the cove where I used to teach ya’ll how to shoot.”

“We’re not gonna leave you.”

“That was an order.”

“Joe. Fightin’ ‘em alone is suicide.”

“Now I’ve faced larger possies than this — and with less bullets, too.”

West gave Joe a sad grin, “Legend in your own mind.”

When the lawmen surrounded the front of the cabin it was West they called for.

“Well then I guess that makes two of us. Now go on, get!” West, Charlie, and Bear all gave Joe a solemn look, but he just chuckled. Bear was the first to head down the cellar, followed by Charlie. West held on for a moment longer, and as he descended the stairs Joe flashed him a warm, fatherly smile. West nodded.

Ol’ Joe took a deep breath and paced back and forth for a moment. He fired a couple warning shots out the window. “You sons o’ bitches wanna fight?!” This was met with gunfire and the windows cascaded around him. He was breathing harder now, trying to fire himself up. He lifted the cellar door once more just to make sure the boys had made it out. They were gone and he was alone. He made the sign of the cross and chuckled. “Crazy old man.”

Ol’ Joe kicked the door open and opened fire. He shouldn’t have lasted as long as he did but he was a tough old son of a bitch. Crazy, too. He laughed mercilessly as he mowed down lawmen and their horses and took slugs to the shoulder and arms and legs and he never stopped firing. One bullet grazed Joe’s face and he dropped to his knees but he got right back up. Another shot to the belly dropped him once more and he stayed there.

In the distance, West, Charlie, and Bear watched the carnage play out. There was nothing they could do and deep down they knew Joe’s plan all along. West watched as one of the lawmen rode up to the porch. He was wearing a sombrero. Ol’ Joe was rising once more to his feet and when he saw the lawman he started to raise his gun and laugh, but the lawman never even gave him a chance and Ol’ Joe laughed no more.

West woke up as he always did – startled, sweating, breathing heavy. No amount of midnights could weaken the past. Mary, already half-dressed for the day’s work, put her hand on West’s cheek. She didn’t need to ask but she did anyway. “Bad dreams?” West just looked at her. She moved her hand from his face to his shoulder. “I guess Ellie’s not the only one.” She smiled that wry smile that only she could give him. He patted her hand on his shoulder.

“At least I didn’t piss the bed.”

“West Steel..!” Mary exclaimed with faux offense.

He grabbed her body tight and pulled her onto the bed and he kissed her like he kissed her the night before.

“Can’t we just forget about the fields for today?”

“We could… but we forgot about the fields yesterday. And I don’t feel like working three times as hard tomorrow.” He grunted playfully and she grunted right back. She stood up and kissed him softly on the forehead before leaving the room.

West sat up in bed, his feet on the floor and his head in his hands. The nightmare and the cabin and Ol’ Joe and Charlie and Bear were still on his mind.

Red Valley – Chapter III

So far I’m keeping to my chapter-a-day self-challenge. It feels good. I’ve always fiddled with prose before – I think everyone that enjoys writing most likely starts out with prose – but never taken it this seriously. And let me tell you, it is a cold bitch mother (Blades of Glory). Anyway, hope you enjoy. Cheers!

 

III

Molloy’s Tavern was barely visible in the rain. The old bar was a lot like its customers: dark, cheap, and out of the way, as if it were hiding from the rest of the world. The bar was sparsely crowded and young Bill Douglas was already on his fourth whiskey and debating a fifth. He was talking loudly with the bartender, a well-dressed, elfish middle-aged man named Danny-Boy.

“I swear on my mother’s grave, it was him.”

“You’re full of shit, Billy. You keep talkin’ this madness and I’ll cut your silly ass off.”

“But it was him! I know it! I seen him as clear as I see you.”

“Yeah, well your vision must be gettin’ pretty blurry ’bout now.”

In the back of the bar sat the Sanchero gang, eavesdropping on the conversation without subtlety. The gang was comprised of six members lead by Roberto Sanchero, a tall and trim Mexican in his mid-twenties with delicate features but a certain hardness about him. His eyes were unblinking and his rage could be seen just under the pupils. Then there was Francis, Roberto’s younger brother, a pudgy, bearded bastard who seemed to never be able to wash the dirt from his face. He was built like a savage but did not possess the cold or calculating demeanor of his older brother. Chico De La Vega was fat and surly and capable of terrible things that matched his terrible temper that only got worse as he drank. He thought himself quite funny which made him quite dangerous. Juan Rodriguez was by far the most calm and sensible of the gang. His arrogance and sarcasm, however, brought about much violence, and he was prone to murder when a woman was involved. Cullen Baker, the only white member of the group, was in his early twenties. He had a terrible gambling problem and an even worse addiction to opiates. His eyes were often glazed over from the drug, making him particularly unpredictable. And then of course there was Megedagik, an Algonquian Native American standing six foot four. He was the quietest of the group, having become an orphan after his tribe was murdered by white settlers. He traded his tomahawk for a buck knife and his bow for a sniper rifle. His skill with these weapons was unparalleled. The gang was becoming restless as Billy rambled.

“Everybody knows that West Steel died ‘bout ten years ago. Shot in the back.”

“I never bought that story for a second,” said Billy. “How could the most dangerous outlaw that ever lived get shot in the back? Unarmed! Just doesn’t make any damn sense.”

“Not a whole lot makes sense when you got that much drink in you, Billy-Boy.” Billy mugged Danny-Boy and then shot back the rest of his whiskey. “‘Nother?”

Before Billy could answer the Sanchero gang was upon him like flies to the carcass.

“We heard you talkin’, boy. You say you seen West Steel?” Billy looked up at Roberto Sanchero, not knowing the man nor the danger he was in.

“Nobody calls me ‘boy.’”

Without warning, Francis and Chico grabbed Billy from behind and held him still. Juan, Cullen, and Megedagik descended upon Billy. Cullen grabbed Billy’s arm and placed his hand flat on the bar. Juan grinned. Violence excited him. It excited most of them to be honest, except for maybe Megedagik.

“Well maybe you prefer to be called ‘nigger’ instead? Huh, nigger?” Billy spat in Roberto’s face. Roberto wiped the spit off his face with his right knuckle and then proceeded to feed that knuckle to Billy. When Danny-Boy asked them to take it outside Juan put a gun to his head. Megedagik was now on the other side of the bar standing directly across from Billy. With his lips solemnly pursed, Dagik produced his large buck knife and began slwoly stabbing the  bar between Billy’s fingers. Watching the knife dance Billy forgot how to blink. Then Dagik started to pick up the pace.

“You see this large Injun playin’ with this large knife here? His name is Megedagik, which in Algonquian means, ‘kills many.’ And make no mistake about it, he has.” The sadistic pleasure dripped off of every one of Roberto’s words. “We don’t want to add you to the list of this savage’s victims now, do we?” Billy stared Roberto down, never speaking a word, even when Dagik’s blade picked up more speed. “When did you come across this ghost?”

“Fuck you.” Roberto answered the indignation with a punch to the face, something Billy was getting quite accustomed to this evening. He spit out some blood as the knife’s pace quickened.

“He’s getting awfully fast with that thing. You know, the faster one goes, the harder it is to control. Even for an Injun as skilled as Dagik.” Billy looked down at the blur moving between his fingers. It was fast, but he could handle it. He kept silent and made sure not to break eye contact with Roberto. The gang leader wasn’t used to not getting his way and he was growing impatient. Finally he unloaded a fury of punches to Billy’s face, one after the other with no signs of relent. “Tell me what you know, you fucking nigger!” Roberto struck several more blows until his arm gave out, but he got one more punishing lick in before he stopped. That last one was too much for Billy, and with a mouth full of blood, he finally broke.

“The plains. About a day’s ride from here. … There’s a ranch.” Satisfied, Roberto nodded to Dagik, who swiftly cut off Billy’s right index finger. Billy fell to the floor and screamed. Robert knelt down and patted him on the head.

“That’s a good boy. Yes it is.”

With a laugh, Roberto and the Sanchero gang were out the door.  As he lay there, Billy wished he’d ordered that fifth drink.

Red Valley – Chapter II

To no one’s surprise this is proving harder than I thought. My prose isn’t nearly as clean as I want it to be but really these are only first drafts. I also find myself unsure as to where to break the chapters. This one is a little longer than I would have liked but I felt it was important to keep it all together. Oh well. Hope you enjoy.

II

Mary was a strong woman – strong build, strong features, strong resolve. She had to be, and whether or not she had been when she first met West hardly mattered. She was strong when he needed her strength, even if he didn’t know it. But her strength was matched only by her pain, which she knew equally well, and most of the time it was West who caused it. Maybe because he knew she could take it, but probably not.

Mary sat as she always did on the front porch of their little ranch home and stood only when West’s silhouette came into view. He’d been to town to turn a profit on their crops, but waiting for him always gave her the same feeling in her gut that she felt when she’d wait for him to return home from a big score. That nagging thought at the back of her brain, the one that told her he might never come home at all, never really left her, even when he did hang up his guns for good. Hank Crowley the family man. They were living a lie in more ways than one.

West had dismounted and was walking beside his horse now and he was close enough that Mary could make out the details of his face. She ran to him, sprinted even, and threw her arms around West’s tired body. She kissed him with such violence that their teeth clashed against each other and they smiled and kissed again with the same force.

From inside the little ranch house burst Ellie, West’s and Mary’s eight year old daughter, her mouth and eyes smiling, and Chief, their stately yellow labrador. They ran to West, much like Mary had, and embraced him with similar enthusiasm. It had only been two weeks since West left the ranch, but to all it felt a lifetime. For the second time that evening West felt content.

That night the Steel family ate well. West loved a good rare steak where the red juices would pool on his plate and he could dip his potatoes into the pool and mop up the pool with fresh bread and lots of butter. Mary didn’t disappoint and she had prepared a large feast that she hoped would keep West home for a great long while.

After dinner they settled into their familiar roles around the bright fire with Chief curled up in front of it snoring. West sat with his eyes closed and his pipe lit, rocking back and forth in his rocker and listening as Mary played a sweet little melody on the piano. Ellie sat next to her mom on the bench and sang along as best she could, her voice like the soft chirp of a small bird. Their house was small and cluttered like a stuffy museum or a shrine for those unwilling to let go of the past. Still, the place had its charm, and the various items throughout – some bought, some stolen, all in some state of collecting dust – were as much a part of the family as those who lived there.

The knock on the door was unexpected, and even though it had been nearly ten years since West had left his old life behind his mind was never far from danger, like a sleeper agent suddenly awoken. He rose upon instinct and opened the door cautiously, ready to hit and be hit, and kill if need be. But when he opened the door he was at once both relieved and disappointed to find Bobby, the nine-year old who lived with his mother a ranch over. Out of a combination of fear and respect, Bobby removed his hat.

“Good evening, Mr. Crowley.”

“Bobby. You comin’ to work in the fields with us tomorrow?”

“Well, sir, I came by to let you know my mama needs me to go with her into town in the morning, but I’ll be by as soon as I get back.”

“That’s fine.” West began shutting the door before Bobby interrupted.

“Um, Mr. Crowley..?”

“Yes,” West asked, his annoyance only slightly evident. Bobby must have caught on because he fiddled with his cap – a nervous habit that West detested – and it took him a moment to speak again.

“If it’s all right with you, sir, I was wondering if I could maybe take Ellie for a walk?”

“I’d love to go!” Ellie’s voice cut through, annoying West further. He looked to his wife

who nodded her head in approval. Knowing boys, having been one himself, West was uncomfortable with the situation.

“What do you want to do on this walk, Bobby?”

“Oh, just walk, sir.”

By this time Ellie had made her way over to the door.

“Hi, Bobby.” Though it was just a greeting it made Bobby blush all the same.

“Hi… Hi, Ellie.”

“Alright. But you two have to stay on the ranch. Where I can see you.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Yes, daddy.”

“Now go on, get.”

West settled back into his rocking chair and chewed on his pipe as Mary closed the lid of the piano.

“You let her go on walks with boys?”

“I let her go on walks with Bobby.” West responded with a grunt and Mary walked over and sat on his lap. He let out another grunt, this one playful. “He’s a good boy, Hank. And don’t forget, you hired him.”

“Well he should be happy with the work and leave our daughter alone.”

“Oh stop. Ellie’s a good girl, and Bobby’s a good boy. They’re fine. It’s young love.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“Look.” Mary turned West’s attention to the window where they watched the young love blossom.

Bobby and Ellie walked along the ranch with Chief by their side. Both were nervous. Bobby fiddled with his cap as Ellie played with one of her little pigtails. The only thing greater than their nerves was their excitement.

“I was wonderin’ if you was goin’ to the county fair next weekend?”

“I reckon I might be.”

“My momma said there’s gonna be a giant there. A man so tall he can touch the tops of the trees.”

“That’s nonsense!”

“Is not! My momma told me so. She also said they’re gon have the skull of West Steel on display.” Ellie wasn’t sure of the name, though she felt like she ought to. She crinkled her nose trying to think but still she could not remember.
“Who’s that again?”

“Only the greatest gunfighter that ever lived! They say he killed over a hundred people.” Ellie’s eyes narrowed.

“Doesn’t sound so great to me.” Bobby wasn’t anticipating Ellie’s rebuke, and he retracted his enthusiasm accordingly.

“Yeah, I… I guess not.” The nerves that had seemingly vanished were now back and Bobby found himself fiddling with his cap again. “Say, Ellie. Would you maybe wanna go to the fair with me?”

“Together?” Bobby nodded fast. “I reckon I might,” Ellie said with a smile that caused Bobby to blush a shade of red he’d never known until this moment.

Inside, Mary was still seated on West’s lap and stroking the back of his hair. “You’ve been quiet tonight. More quiet than usual. Somethin’ happen when you was in town?” West stared into the fire for a long moment before answering.

“There was a hanging yesterday. Three thieves.” West explained to Mary that he was passing through town when he got caught in the mass of spectators. He never liked hangings, probably because he’d only narrowly avoided so many in his time. He told her how two of the thieves begged for their lives like dogs and how it was pitiful to watch. He told her that the third thief cried out to his wife and boy who were in the crowd, and how he apologized to them. He told her how as this was all going on, West envisioned himself as the third thief, and the wife and the boy as Mary and Ellie, and how they were sobbing. The whole episode seemed to disturb West. “That third thief seemed really, truly sorry. And I couldn’t help but think… Maybe they shoulda given him a second chance.”

“You were given a second chance.” West grunted.

“But I had to die first.” Mary took West’s face in her hands and turned him towards her. She kissed him gently yet passionately on the mouth.

“Will you check on the children?”

Outside, Bobby and Ellie continued their stroll. The hard part was over now and Bobby felt relief. But he also felt like pushing his luck.

“Can I tell ya somethin’?” Smiling, Ellie nodded her head. Bobby leaned in and whispered into her ear. She shrieked, threw him to the ground and ran inside.

“What’s the matter? What did he do?” West was ready to go to war with the boy.

“He called me cute!”

That night West tucked his daughter into bed. He’d made a habit of telling her bedtime largely inappropriate bedtime stories. But he knew no other kind. He’d accompany his stories with pantomime, acting out the details for his appreciative little Ellie.

“And there they was, surrounded by twenty lawmen. All them boys were outta bullets. All ‘cept for Ol’ Joe. He pulled the covers up to the bottom of Ellie’s neck. “Well, Ol’ Joe told ’em, ‘Don’t you worry boys, when I say go, you boys take off runnin’!’” Mary stopped, as she always did, and listened to her husband’s tale, happily annoyed. “And like a crazy man, Ol’ Joe blitzed out that front door like a stallion, guns blazin’, while the rest of the boys made it out the back.”

“What happened to Ol’ Joe, daddy?” West bowed his head.

“Sometimes, a sacrifice is made for the greater good. And sometimes… good men fall, little darlin’.”

“Did they shoot Ol’ Joe?” West solemnly nodded his head.

“But because of his brave act, the rest of them cowboys lived to fight another day.” Ellie began to cry and West wanted to join her.

“Shh. Shhh. It’s all right, it’s just a story. Besides, more cowboys lived than died.”

“But why did anyone have to die?” West looked at her, startled and puzzled by her question. One he’d never thought to ask himself.

“World ain’t always a perfect place.”

“Daddy. Why you always tell me stories about cowboys?”

“Would you prefer stories about princesses?”

“No.” This made West smile and he kissed her on the forehead.

“Goodnight, little darlin’.”

Mary was already in bed when West came into their room and started changing out of his clothes. He knew he was in for a scolding.

“Jesus, Hank. You are going to give our poor daughter nightmares with those awful stories.”

“She seemed to like it.”

“Ain’t heard you talk about Joe in a long time.” West pretended not to hear her. He got into bed, wrapped his arms around his wife and kissed her. It had been a long time since he felt her body against his, and he looked down at her lovingly.

“Tell me somethin’.” Mary gazed up at her husband, returning the loving look and letting the tension between them peak before she spoke.

“You smell.” They broke into laughter. In all his time, it was only Mary who could genuinely make him laugh. And he wondered if that was why he married her. Once the laughter died down and the romantic tension resumed Mary placed her hand on his cheek.

“Seriously.”

“Seriously… I missed you so much these last two weeks you were gone. So much so that it hurt, Hank. I’m shamed to admit that my mind wandered to thoughts of you… finding someone younger… livelier…”

“Livelier than you?”

“A woman has a right to worry about such things.” And Mary certainly had the right. There had been other women in the past, she knew, but so was the price of being in love with a famous outlaw. West took both of Mary’s hands in his and kissed them.

“You don’t gotta worry about me sharin’ my affections with another woman. Except maybe your daughter.” Mary smiled.

“I can live with that.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I don’t want you to leave ever again.”

“Ever?”

“Ever.”

West and Mary embraced each other as they had when they first fell in love. They were tender and sensual and before long West moved on top of her but before either could let out a moan light footsteps could be heard coming up behind them. Mary could see Ellie standing sheepishly in the doorway.

“What is it, sweetheart?”

“I had a bad dream and I — I… I wet my bed.” Mary looked at West as if to say ‘I told you so.’ He took the hint with a great sigh, rolled off his wife and walked over to Ellie. He took her by the hand and led her to her room. Mary couldn’t help but laugh.

Later that night West and Mary made love. And while it was happening West meditated on Mary’s smooth skin and how soft every part of her felt. He was thankful to her for so many things, and admired even more. Especially her strength.

Red Valley – Chapter I

So one of my New Years’ Resolutions is to turn one of my screenplays into a novel. I’ll be writing and challenging myself in a new form, but it’ll be nice to have a completed story to work with. At the suggestion of my wife I’ve decided to start with Red Valley, my first real screenplay. I’ll be posting the chapters one by one and hopefully this will keep me engaged. Cheers.

I

By 1888, the old west was but a myth, and the characters that once populated it were now but legends, either retired or – the smarter ones – dead. Hank Steel – or West, as he was known in those days – was not one of the smarter ones.

The sun was slowly setting across the Arizona plains and West rode with a speed to match. He was restless but not unhappy making an honest living even if it was under the pretense of a lie. But he was getting older now and this pace suited him just fine. He cursed his age when he heard the hammer click behind him and suddenly he was content.

“Stick ‘em up, old man.” Young Billy Douglas was new to the game and twenty years too late. Being a black man with a chip on his shoulder, he had a lot to prove. West smiled. He’d never been anyone’s first before. “How much money you got?”

“I don’t.”

“Quit playin’ games, old timer.”

“The only one playing games, boy,” West turned around to face him, “is you.”

“Ain’t nobody calls me boy–” The cocking of West’s gun stopped Billy shy of exclaimation. But as the light hit West, Billy could see the gaunt face and the leather features and the lines that were either born from age or a blade. Probably both. And Billy recognized this face.

“Little advice – boyif you’re gonna rob a person, do it to somebody you can actually scare.”

“You — you’re West Steel. But you supposed to be dead.” West lowered his head hoping the hat would throw off the kid but it was too late. “I got your wanted poster hangin’ –”

“I ain’t no West Steel. The name’s Crowley. You got me mixed up.”

“No sir, I’d know that face even in the darkest of night. You’re somethin’ of a hero to me. It’s a real honor.” Billy extended his hand but was met with another click of West’s gun.

“Now I’m willin’ to let you ride off with your brains still inside your head. You stop all this foolish talk now.”

Billy understood and didn’t press the subject any further. He knew the truth and that should have been good enough. As he watched West ride off he was grateful for the meeting but disappointed all the same.

My $2 Muse

Since before I could spell I knew I wanted to write. To tell stories. To entertain, but more importantly, to let people know they weren’t as alone as they might have thought.

I had taken a job as a technology coordinator at a boarding school just minutes away from my apartment. I’d taken the job to better support my wife and myself, but my soul was crying out. Constantly I felt like I was in trouble, like I was going to get fired, and somehow the money I made never seemed enough, though it was considerably more than what I had been making. The worst part, however, was that I wasn’t writing.

Sure, I might tinker here and there with works I long thought finished. The occasional blog post here and there would at once bring me pleasure at having written, and disgust at having written a blog. The next big idea, the next screenplay, was a long ways away yet. I hadn’t nourished the brain or the soul as one should after exhausting the muse. The only way to refill the muse, of course, is to consume new pieces of art.

I tried, in vain, with movies for months on end. But I felt bored and so uninspired that it made me question why I even wanted to write screenplays in the first place. Video games weren’t much better, but at least they were interactive. I was over superhero comics to a large degree – I’d read every Batman story out there worth reading – but the indie gems had remained largely untapped.

The week after Christmas I read The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips – a seedy noir about a screenwriter in 1948 Hollywood who wakes up to find a starlet murdered – the perfect catalyst to get my mind back in gear and thinking about stories again. I was grateful, and I needed more.

For a long time I considered Charles Bukowski the greatest writer – unmatched in his simplicity and severity. I’d read all of his novels except one – whether the title – Ham on Rye – didn’t appeal to me or if I was saving it because I knew after that, there’d be no more I couldn’t be sure. Either way, I did not feel the enthusiasm to jump back into his work at this time, though he had inspired me greatly the last several years.

I believe it was a Tuesday when I took my wife down into the Carmel Valley Crossroads for her appointment. The Crossroads had many good restaurants, possibly the best being Robata, but Lugano had seen some fine days as well. That day we ate at a little French cafe called Lafayette, and while I did not technically order anything, our clerk charged me for the vanilla-raisin pastry I simply asked about. The food was fine, the coffee was better, and I regretted that there weren’t better shops.

After I dropped my wife off at her appointment I headed to Old Yellow Brick Road Bookstore, at least that’s what I think it’s called, an old consignment book shop. I was looking for something, not knowing what, and had I known I wouldn’t have found it. I scoured the fiction paperbacks as I did at the comic and record shops – hoping anything somewhat interesting might catch my eye.

And then there it was: Earnest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast. I’d always avoided Hemingway as he had been my ex-roommate’s favorite. Funny how one annoying person’s love for something can spoil it for others, but thankfully not completely.

I thumbed through the first couple pages and I liked the prose – simple, severe, Bukowski before Bukowski. I looked at the back of the trade and discovered that this particular volume wasn’t a work of fiction, but a memoir about Hem’s time in Paris in the twenties, interacting with all the expatriate laureates, most notable of which being Gertrude Stein and the Fitzgeralds. The book was two dollars and I hoped to actually read it, as I did with every book I bought, whether I eventually did read them or just sat them on a shelf.

Luckily for me, Hemingway’s prose was a hook and I the fish. I hadn’t read with such fury and interest since my first Bukowski novel, Factotum. The big idea I’d been hoping for still hadn’t materialized, but that was okay because I knew it would as it always did, so long as I kept refilling the muse with new words.