Published on Monday, November 8, 2010
By David Harry Moss
Mel Desmond staggered out of Curly McClure's Barroom, took one stumbling step under a big, silver-dollar moon in stifling prairie heat, and heard two quick gunshots. His lean, almost six feet tall frame jerked rigid, his whiskey-clogged head cleared for a moment, and ghosts of slaughtered soldiers leaped disjointedly at him from the Kansas cow-town shadows.
The ghastly apparitions vanished when Curly's husky voice coming from nearby on the creaky plank walk said, "Some slow-witted Texans shooting off frustrations. They keep it up they'll spook those steers they worked so hard to herd up here."
Desmond muttered, "Yeah." In the saturnine moonlight Desmond slow-walked along Texas Street. Yellow lighted saloons, gambling halls, and brothels lined both sides, darkened and more civilized shacks like Fay's Eatery, Slim's Shave and Bath, Ling's Laundry, Heeton's Hotel, a bank, a mercantile store, sundry shops, and a stone jail squatted a short distance away beyond the single rail track of the Kansas Pacific. The track ran behind the saloons close to the corrals of the Great Western Stockyards stuffed with 25,000 stomping bleating Texas long-horns. The gun fire came from there, the cattle pen area.
Up ahead, Desmond spotted a tawdry perfumed saloon girl called Ruby in a gaudy red dress trapped in sallow window light and rolling a cigarette. A whimsy smile creased her worn face splotched with rouge. Desmond nodded "hello" dull-brained as she scraped the wooden match into flame, saw a spangled fleck of leaping red spark that made Ruby flinch.
"Need some company, Mel?"
"No thanks Ruby," Desmond crossed the dry dusty street.
From between two buildings in an alley a man's voice boomed, "There's a dead man back here. Two bullet holes in his back." Desmond paused, sucked in thick dung scented air.
Heading across the tracks for Heeton's Desmond slowed to shuffling steps, watched the saloons empty of drunks and bar girls, everyone scampering to glimpse death in maudlin moon beams. "Someone plugged Bert Grimes," were the words Desmond took into Heeton's with him.
"Whoever killed Bert Grimes gets a dink on me," Desmond slurred at the marauding moon. Desmond pulled his clothes off and tumbled onto a lumpy bed replaying what had occurred between him and Bert Grimes in Bert's final surly moments alive.
An hour earlier Desmond had banged out "Camp Town Races" on the piano and the giddy crowd gathered around bellowed with him in sour off-key voices. A pretty girl, Maddy Blair from St. Lou, sounded closest in tune. Maddy came to Abilene, the end point of the Chisholm Trail running from San Antonio, a month ago with Bert Grimes, the owner of the Square Deal Saloon, Maddy's job being to smile at the suckers and spin the roulette wheel.
Bert Grimes watched mean-eyed through the smoky haze from across the room at the oak bar with its brass rail and row of spittoons and soiled towels dangling on a ledge so the patrons could wipe the beer suds off their mustaches, watched Maddy cozy up to a piano player, a drifter with a smooth handsome face and shiny black hair. Grimes swallowed two ounces of stiff snake oil liquor, ordered the bartender to pour another, and gritted tobacco stained teeth.
Desmond's eyes strayed from Bert Grimes to the faded painting of a nude woman behind the bar and then away. He played the anthem of the Lone Star cowboys, "Yellow Rose of Texas", and the hundreds of raspy voices in the jammed saloon joined him in raucous song.
"Her eyes are bright as diamonds they sparkle like the dew. - -- - - - - - - ."
The racket shook the saloon causing the steer horns adorning the walls to rattle. Desmond watched lanky Webb Grimes sidle up to his brother, one as crazy as the other, both rattlesnake nasty. Webb said something to Bert and Bert leered with malice sending Webb teetering back, lips twisted in a snarl.
Desmond stopped playing and gasped for air in the tobacco-smoke cloud. Around him the big room swirled with rowdy excitement, Maddy's roulette wheel spinned dizzily again and shouts came from the faro and poker tables in every corner. Oil lamps sprayed thin muddy light from wagon wheel racks dangling on spider webs of rope. Putrid perfume and beer and whiskey stink and unclean body sweat effusing from unwashed human flesh aided the rank tobacco smoke in snuffing out any trace breathable air. Desmond wanted to puke.
He caught another glance of Bert glaring lances of hate his way. Desmond sensed trouble crawling like scorpions over him. "Got to get some air." Stool legs scrapped the rough plank floor when Desmond stood, sullen in the murky glow, but proudly clean in a crisp white shirt, spotted with sweat, and black boots he kept shined. Desmond squared his shoulders. He had spent time on the stage in New York City as an actor before he joined a traveling minstrel show in Pittsburgh. He knew how to carry himself yet he felt weighted down from running place to place for four weary years to escape gruesome memories. Making a dangerous choice with Maddy knowing that Bert considered her to be his girl added to his plight.
"Wait," Maddy shouted from nearby, coppery curls tumbling around a wild-flower bright face. "I'll go with you." Dazzled by Maddy's looks Desmond couldn't keep away, sampled her in the straw in a stable behind the train depot. He felt melancholy with longing peering at her now, a lonely man gazing at a girl glowing like minted gold and stabbing needles in his heart. What a lousy time to fall in love he rued.
Desmond shook his head somberly. "Stay away. He's watching."
Maddy's sugary smile vanished and her blue eyes flared. "I'm not his. This is just a stop for me on my way to San Francisco. I only run the roulette wheel, that's all I do for him."
Maddy's girl-soft allure made Desmond's shredded heart sway. "Keep away from me." He pushed by her and weaved through the milling mob to the door. Bert Grimes, a big man, coarse skin, square jaw, blocked Desmond from going outside.
"No one cuts in on my play," Bert Grimes sneered, thick lips stone like.
Desmond shrugged. Only a fool would risk a showdown with Bert Grimes. Love ache tore at Desmond who did not want a fight. He knew that a fight with Bert Grimes always ended in death. Desmond did not want to die and he could not kill. Desmond's body sagged. "You'll never see me again."
Grimes slugged Desmond flush on the jaw, a looping drunkard's punch without much force behind it but powerful enough to knock Desmond to his knees. He remained there for a moment, red dots tripping over black circles in his eyes. Desmond licked blood from his stinging lips, stared bleak-eyed at the tainted sawdust on the floor.
Desmond had been in trouble over women before. He knew he had acted stupidly making a play for another man's girl but he did not easily accept being punched. His muscles knotted like whip cord. Rage and loathing raced through him fast like a stampeding herd. He knew he could take Bert Grimes with fists or a gun. He did not act. A calm prevailed.
Desmond lifted himself, smoothed back his tousled black hair. A gash on his chin dripped blood on his white sweat-dampened shirt. Desmond worked his jaw bone side to side, felt lingering pain but nothing broken, no loose teeth. He looked Bert Grimes square in the eyes and said, "You made your point. Don't push it."
"What if I do push it you tinhorn drifter."
Recklessly Desmond said, "I'll beat you senseless. You'll never be the same again." Desmond turned away and shoved through the batwing doors to the outside, head high.
Big bellied Sheriff Zach Stoner kicked in Desmond's door, shined brash red light from a lantern into Desmond's face causing Desmond to blink sleepy brown eyes. The Sheriff spat chaw juice on the floor nearly splattering Desmond's cared-for black boots with brownish slime.
"Bert Grimes is dead. Two bullet holes in his back."
Old news Desmond thought. Suddenly awake Desmond said, "I don't own a gun. Haven't used one or even touched one in years."
"Let's take a stroll," Stoner offered. "Sniff the steer dung night air. Good for the lungs and it clears the brain for truth telling."
Desmond dressed while Stoner searched the cheaply furnished room for the gun that killed Bert Grimes.
Sitting across from Stoner in the jailhouse Desmond listened to Stoner say, "Grimes humiliated you in front of that crowd in his saloon. "
Desmond rubbed his jaw, still aching and bruised and inhaled the Sheriff's foul black cigar smoke. "It wasn't so bad. I been dropped before."
Desmond watched the lawman's large dark eyes turn lewd. "That Maddy girl is pretty. Worth killing for," Sheriff Stoner brayed.
Desmond shook his head somberly. "I didn't kill Bert Grimes."
"You threatened him," Sheriff Stoner said.
Desmond shrugged. "I didn't kill him."
The Sheriff snorted, swallowed cigar smoke. "Can't prove you did, yet." Stoner flicked gray cigar ash on the floor, made his rugged face serene. "Don't think you did anyway. Stay in town until this gets cleared. If you run off I'll know you're my man."
Desmond scowled. Most of the crime in Abilene never got solved. He said, "I was one step out of Curly McClure's saloon waving to a bar girl called Ruby when Bert Grimes got plugged." He recalled watching Ruby roll the paper and then light that cigarette in the shadows, remembered her beckoning smile and the strong scent of her lilac perfume.
Stoner curled his lips showing rotten teeth. "Right now you're my main suspect. I got to go through the motions of conducting an investigation so folks think I'm doing my job."
As Desmond stood the Sheriff yanked open a desk drawer. He lifted a gun, a Remington Army model .44 caliber, and shoved it across the desk top to Desmond. "Take it. Bert's brother is already saying that you're a dead man." The Sheriff's eyes narrowed keen. "It's a sham is my guess. I'm betting that Webb put that lead in his brother. Nobody liked Bert much, not even his nearest kin."
Was offering the Remington a ploy to see if Desmond lied about not liking guns, Desmond wondered? Without touching the gun Desmond backed toward the door, arms fence-post rigid at his sides, fingers stiff, his lips tight like stretched rawhide against his teeth. The torment in his eyes betrayed his mind reaching back, screeching guns with no souls spitting shells that gored men in ragged blues and grays, leaving mutilated corpses and rivers of blood. Desmond reeled against the stench of slaughter that haunted him without mercy.
Glowering the sheriff said, "Take that gun or I might just lock you up for your own well being."
Desmond made a swallowing sound. "If you think Webb killed his brother go after him. Or don't you have the guts?"
"Watch your mouth," the Sheriff warned, his lips curled beneath his shaggy mustache.
Dozens of saloons in that cow town but no welcome for a man marked-for-death, Desmond reasoned. No one wanted his joint shot up by Webb Grimes. No one wanted Desmond's blood splattering the walls. A reluctant Curly McClure let Desmond in for a drink. Before he could take a sip of the whiskey a nervous looking Maddy sidled through the doors.
"I don't like the idea that a man got murdered over me," Maddy whispered, tears pooling in her eyes. "It makes me look like a tramp." She sounded harsh.
Desmond slumped lower in the chair, face grim. She pulled over a chair and sat next to him, her skin pale and her lips quivering.
"Well, tell the truth," Maddy screamed, her pretty face ravaged by rage. Those along the bar stopped their drinking and looked.
"I want you, but not that way," Desmond responded, his voice steady. "Maybe not any way now," as a lament.
Shuddering, Maddy's nostrils flared. She pushed herself from the table, knocking over the chair, and ran from the barroom. He stared with remorse at the empty spot in the doorway through which she had fled, believing that she was out of his life forever.
Desmond squeezed his eyes shut. Whiskey sent his mind whirling back six miserable years, Gettysburg, three dismal days and night, ceaseless artillery fire, wailing crashing exploding shells, dense smoke, cries of agony, mounds of mangled men and bloated horses dead, wave after wave of Rebs closing in, the saturnine stench of appalling gore.
A panic stricken twenty year old Mel Desmond prayed to GOD to live, vowed never to kill again if he survived the War. "I'll die first dear GOD before I kill anyone for any reason after this War ends. Please protect me GOD," Desmond pleaded. "Don't let me die. Please GOD. Please."
Curly, short and fat, wiped his plump hands on his soiled bartender's apron and duck-waddled to Desmond. "He's coming Mel. You got to get out of here."
Desmond didn't move. He opened his eyes, rubbed his teeth with his tongue, peered forlornly at the door. "Let him come."
"Damn you Mel," Curly hissed. "He'll kill you."
Desmond's shoulders sagged. "If he does it's meant to be."
"Take this then." Curly reached under his apron and lifted a .32 caliber pistol from his belt. He laid the gun on the table and pushed it to Desmond so that the butt end nudged Desmond's folded hands.
On rusty hinges the swinging saloon door creaked open and Webb Grimes, knife sharp face, killer's eyes, swaggered in, a revolver drawn. The large crowd in the room scampered clear of Webb and Mel, of impending bullets with no brains. All Desmond saw was GOD sitting across from him at the table, waiting and remembering the solemn promise Desmond made six years ago. "I won't ever kill again," was Desmond's vow.
"I hear you got a coward in here, Curly, "Webb grimes bellowed. "A coward who shot my brother Bert in the back."
In a low strained voice Desmond said, "You killed him Webb. Everybody knows it. You want me blamed. Maybe you killed him for the saloon or maybe because you hated him. But regardless, you killed him, your own brother."
Webb Grimes lifted broad bony shoulders. Pumping blood darkened even deeper Webb's swarthy face. "Say that again."
"I said don't lay Bert's death on me." Desmond stared at the gun in front of him. He was such a skilled shot that he had been a sniper during the War. Desmond had killed many many times, four years of it, until the slaughter ended, until he limped home his sprit forever scarred. With either hand Desmond could shoot Webb's eyes out. In the chair Desmond swooned, squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, heard the blare of gunfire again from Gettysburg, and heard the echo of the vow he had made with almighty GOD.
Desmond stood, his stiffened fingers curled like claws. "I didn't shoot your brother, Webb, but I stand by what I said. I think you put those bullets in his back." Desmond took a deep breath and stepped closer to Webb and the pointed gun in Webb's right hand. Webb stood his ground. He lifted his wide shoulders and cocked the hammer. The click of the hammer came close to unnerving Desmond.
Desmond made a swallowing sound. Sweat like ice oozed from his pours and made him shiver. "I want you to know this, Webb, and I want everyone in this room to know this, I'm no coward. I know more about guns and more about killing than the whole lot of you will ever know but I made a sacred vow not to kill again and I can't break that vow, not now, not ever. I'll die first." Desmond stared bleak eyed at Webb Grimes. "Murder me like you murdered Bert or let me be."
Webb's expression became vague. The gun wavered in his hand.
Desmond brushed past Webb, the gun barrel rubbing a shoulder, and took slow unsteady steps outside braced for a slug in the back. Nothing happened. On the creaky walkway in front of Curly McClure's saloon he paused to let his pounding heart slow. His knees buckled from the strain of what he had just endured. He heard footsteps and turned and saw Maddy. Her arms were folded tightly across her chest and she was trembling.
"Are you leaving Abilene?" she asked. The normal lilt in her voice wasn't there. Her tone was stark.
The bright moon threw a hoary blanket of light over them. On the fringes of the blanket of moon light grim shadows loomed.
Maddy unfolded her arms and wrung her hands. "Do you want me to go with you?" Her voice throbbed.
Did he or did he not want her? He made up his mind. He held out his arms and she hurried to him.
David Harry Moss is a writer and an actor. His fiction has been published in print and online. He writes in many genres. As an actor, he has appeared in numerous films, most notably Silence of the Lambs as an F.B.I. agent. Currently, he lives in Pittsburg but he has also lived in Minneapolis and Phoenix.