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Published on Sunday, June 23, 2013

Rio

By David Harry Moss

 

The town sat on high ground above a dry wash that served as a border separating Arizona Territory from Mexico. From above, in a copper sky, a blazing orange disc of a sun beat down on hard baked land where fiery waves of heat rose from a furnace hot floor. From the mountains to the north fierce flashes of lightening followed unsettling rumbles of thunder.

Except for a two story hotel built of sturdy wood the buildings were one story adobe. On the front porch of the hotel a little girl, five years old, with tousled brown hair, skipped rope in the early morning heat. From down the street three rough looking men sat on benches in front of the saloon watching her.

Across the street, the front door of a barber shop opened and a man, six feet and lean with slicked back, dark hair, appeared. His brown eyes were hard like the land and little ridges of muscle stood out along his jaw. He had high cheekbones and a wide mouth. He wore black boots, faded black cotton twill pants, and a white linen shirt with black sleeve garters and a black string tie. Unlike the three men lounging in front of the saloon, he did not pack a gun.

The man crossed the street kicking up puffs of dust with each step and approached the little girl. Up close, he noticed that she had sweetly shaped lips, a slightly upturned nose, and green eyes that matched the calico dress she wore. Her eyes held a hint of playfulness, of vivacity. She tossed the stranger a bright smile that made him flinch.

   

"Morning." The man's voice shook when he spoke.

"Hello." She stopped skipping rope. There was a sense of warm intimacy in her demeanor.

"I heard you sing last night. You were terrific." It came back to him. The dim crowded adobe saloon with its low ceiling, its cedar plank bar, its oil lamps, the thick tobacco smoke, and this beautiful little girl on a make shift stage singing, "- - -come and sit by my side if you love me, do not hasten to bid me adieu - - -". He stood in the back in the darkest shadows, his attention riveted on the angelic songstress.

"Thank you." The girl was part of a five person troupe of entertainers heading west.

"My name is Lester, but folks call me Les," the man said. "I'm a barber."

The girl smiled again and in the glow of that smile the man seemed to tremble. "I'm Abigail, but," she paused a moment and cocked her head as she scrutinized him, "can you keep a secret?"

"Sure. I'm good with secrets."

"You mustn't let my mother know."

The girl's mother, Sarah Fowler, also a singer, was part of the troupe, along with its leader, Nathan Griggs, an actor and accordion player, and a middle aged couple, the laughing Bentleys, that sang and performed a bawdy comedy act.

"I won't say a word to your mother about your secret."

"I like to be called Rio."

The man rocked back on his heels as if he'd been punched. "Why?"

"That's what my father was called. A stage driver in Denver told me that. His real name was Jack Ennis but people knew him as Rio. My mother doesn't approve of me being called that. She forbids it in fact."

"Where is your father?"

The girl's eyes saddened. "He's dead."

The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold coin with a hole drilled into it and attached to a strip of rawhide. "This is for you, for being the most lovable little girl I've ever seen or ever will see." He struggled saying the words, wrenched them free.

Her eyes sparkled. "Thank you." When he handed the girl the necklace their fingers scraped. Her flesh was soft and warm. He bit into his lower lip almost tearing flesh and drawing blood. His eyes moistened. He spun away from her and in long hurried strides retreated to the barber shop. From in front of the saloon the three rough looking men kept watching.

 

*         *        *

 

Inside the hotel, Abigail bounded up the rickety stairs and knocked on a door. Her mother, perhaps thirty, with brown hair, crescent shaped lips, and sorrowful pale green eyes, opened the door. Morning light seeping through a dust stained window revealed a room with bare walls and a bare warped floor, an old dresser, a cracked mirror, a stiffed-back chair, and a sagging bed holding a man. The man, Nathan Griggs, wearing ankle high shoes, brown trousers, and a gray wool shirt, lay still and stared up vacantly at the ceiling.

"Is Nathan feeling any better?"

Sarah Fowler shook her head.

"What frightened him like that? Did he say?"

"No," Sarah lied. "Don't ask again."

Abigail's eyes brightened. "Look what some man gave me. A necklace, just like yours."

Abigail held out the necklace and Sarah stared at it with a stunned look. "Oh my God." Sarah fell back against a wall, her legs buckling. Grim faced she asked, "What man gave this to you?"

Abigail's expression became startled. "Is it all right that I took it?"

Sarah pressed forward and gripped Abigail by the shoulders, hurting her because Abigail grimaced and her eyes widened in terror. Her mother's face had turned ghastly pale. "Yes, it's all right. Tell me the man's name."

"It's Lester. He's a barber."

Sarah released Abigail, knelt before her, pulled her close, and hugged her tightly. "I'm sorry honey, if I hurt you." Sarah's body shook from a series of violent sobs.

"You're crying Mom."

"Go to our room. Please, Abigail. Go to our room."

Once Abigail was gone, Sarah opened a carpet bag lying next to the bed where Nathan Griggs lay, lifted a bottle of brandy and took a hefty swig. Her heart kicked wildly in her chest like an animal trying to escape a cage.

 

*         *        *

 

On the front porch of the hotel, Sarah gazed at the barber shop for a long while before her heart beat slowed and she found the courage to cross the street and enter it.

He was sitting on a barber's chair waiting for her. When she walked through the door he stood. She peered at him through a stark expression as if seeing a ghost and uttered, "Jack," and he reached out with open arms and she fell against him. "It really is you." He guided her into the chair that he had occupied.

He gritted his teeth. "Why did you and Abigail have to come here?" His tone was bitter.

She blinked her eyes. "How could I know? I even went to Cheyenne to be sure. I saw your grave."

He clenched his fists. "The grave is empty. That was the only way I could get away from the life I was living. That's why I left you. It was the only way I could give you and Abigail the chance for decency I am unable to offer."

She thought back to the day he disappeared two years ago. "We could have made it work, somehow."

He breathed in deeply and sighed out the air, his broad shoulders rising and drooping. "Never. The stamp of evil is too ingrained in me, Jack Rio Ennis, gambler, hired gun, killer. My time for finding peace has come and gone. I couldn't drag you an Abigail into hell with me."

Sarah bent forward and put her face in her hands.

"I'm still in love with you, Sarah. Just so you know. I always will be."

She looked up, her eyes wet and swollen. "But my love for you is so much deeper. I missed you every second of the time you've been away."

He came up behind her and kissed her damp hair, breathed in her strawberry shampoo scent.

"What happens now, Jack? To the three of us."

"You and Abigail go away and forget this meeting ever took place." He cleared his throat. "You seemed happy last night, on that stage, singing your songs."

"In a way I am happy. Nathan is a wonderful man. He wants to marry me. He's taught Abigail beautiful things, about music, about theater. They read the bible together every day."

Jack Ennis sighed again. "Then stick with him. It's a dead end with me. I'm what I am and someday I'll be exposed." He lifted a strand of her hair and then let it fall. "Does he know about your life with me?"

"I'm sure he doesn't. None of the people I'm with now know. When we met I was going by my maiden name, Fowler."

"Keep it that way, Sarah. It seems that life has finally dealt you some winning cards."

She twisted in the chair to look at him. "Not really. There's a man named Lankton in town, with two others. They want to kill Nathan."

His lips twitched. "Why?"

"Nathan was a witness against Lankton in a killing in Fort Worth. Lankton shot a sheriff's deputy in the back. Even after Nathan told what he saw the judge let Lankton go." She wrung her hands together. "That's why we're here, on the run, trying ---."

  

The heavy clomp of boots on the plank walk in front of the barber shop stopped Sarah in mid sentence. Her expression became stricken when she saw a tall man with a whiskered, sunburned face standing in the doorway. A brim of a sweat drenched Mexican sombrero hooded his dark eyes. Long dirty blond hair curled around his ears. On his slim hips two ugly looking .45's rested low. Two men, one a round faced Mexican with a knife scar on his cheek, the other, a sunburned white man with narrow set eyes, both wearing sombreros and packing two guns, stood behind him.

"I need a haircut, barber." The tall man spoke in a husky voice through blistered lips curled in a scowl.

Jack Ennis said, "You'll have to come back later. I'm not opened."

Lankton shifted his harsh gaze to Sarah. "Tell that yellow little rat you call a man that his time is almost up." He looked again at Jack Ennis. "I'll let you finish your little chat with the lady and then come back for that haircut."

"Wash your hair first. With lye soap. I don't want head lice in my shop."

Lankton's shoulders stiffened. "I'm offended by that remark."

"I tell it to everyone."

Lankton leaned forward, his eyes glaring. "I'm not everyone. Do you know who I am?"

"I've heard of you. I've heard you're better than anyone with those guns."

Lankton grinned showing cruel yellowed teeth. "Be glad you aren't wearing a gun and be glad that you got a female to hide behind."

Jack Ennis shrugged. "I'm glad on both counts." He went to the opened doorway and watched Lankton and his two sidekicks swagger across the street toward the saloon.

Sarah gripped the arms of the barber's chair and lifted her eyes to Jack. "You haven't changed. You're still not afraid of anyone."

"I was afraid this time. I'm no match for men like Lankton anymore. I haven't touched a gun in two years. My gunfighting days are over."

Sarah let her eyes fall to her hands. "Why doesn't he just get it over with?"

"He's loco, Sarah. Can't you see that? He wants this Nathan Griggs of yours to squirm. He might even be hoping that Nathan kills himself and then there won't be any chance of trouble with the law."

Sarah lifted herself from the chair. "There is no law. The Army escort from Fort Thomas that brought us here won't be back for a week. By then it will be over."

Grim faced, Jack nodded.

"We can't even make a run for it because there are renegade Apaches lurking to the North and marauding bandits everywhere else. We're trapped."

Jack shrugged.

"I have to ask you this, Jack." Next, she bit off the words. "What will happen to me and Abigail when Lankton kills Nathan? Can we count on you? At least for a little while?"

His lifted his arms in supplication. "You'd be signing my death warrant and signing yours and Abigail's if we ever got back together. One of my enemies, and I have lots of them, would figure it all out. I have to stay as I am, inconspicuous, a clean shaven, short haired barber without a gun."

She fell against him and he wrapped her in his arms. She looked up at his face and pressed her lips against his. He kissed her back with fervor and then pushed her away. "You shouldn't have done that, Sarah. The hurt I feel now is so final it can never go away."

She rubbed her eyes with the knuckles of her balled fist. "I'll leave you then, Jack."

"I wish I knew of a way to give you and Abigail a chance at some happiness."

"That can only happen if Nathan stays alive."

"I'm sorry."

"We'll never see one another again, will we?"

"Go away, Sarah, please."

As she backed out of the barber shop he slumped into the chair and placed his hands on his knees and bent forward staring at the floor.

She heard him mutter, "Where ever I am, you will always be my wife; Abigail will always be my daughter. I love both of you so much."

Sarah ran as fast as she could run, tripping once, and falling in the dusty street and getting up and running until out of breath and light headed she reached the hotel entrance.

 

*         *        *

 

That night the rain came in slanting sheets that battered the roof of the hotel and shook the glass in the windows. Sarah stayed in her room with Abigail, waiting for Lankton to come up the stairs and kick in the door of Nathan's room and kill Nathan. It had to end that way.

A few minutes before midnight she heard the gunshots, a half dozen of them, but the gunshots did not come from the hotel. Sarah and Abigail leaped form their bed and went to a window and peered out. Squinting against the darkness and through the lines of rain they saw a lone figure on a horse riding in the direction of the road going north. The rider, wearing a flat crown, wide brimmed hat and a slicker, rode slumped forward in the saddle.

Sarah and Abigail dressed quickly and raced down the stairs. The hotel lobby was filled with people. They went to the front porch and saw, even in the down pour, people milling about on the uncovered sidewalk and muddy street.

The two Bentley's came to stand beside Sarah and Abigail.

"It was him," Fred Bentley said, shaking water from his derby.

Sarah uttered, "Who?"

"Why Rio Ennis himself," Elsie Bentley said, a shawl wrapped around her plump shoulders. "It happened in the saloon."

Abigail shuddered and squeezed Sarah's nearest hand.

"Killed an hombre called Lankton and the two men with him," Fred Bentley said. "The bartender identified him as Rio Ennis by his gun and black leather Buscadero style gunbelt. A black handled Remington.44 in a double loop holster. Around his neck, for good luck, he had a gold coin dangling on a strip of rawhide."

"He came in as calm as could be, into that smoky bar-room," Elsie Bentley said. "He leaned against the back wall, on the makeshift stage in the exact spot where little Abigail sang last night, with all eyes on him, and pulled the makings from his shirt pocket and deftly rolled a cigarette. After he struck a wooden match to the tobacco he stared at Lankton and told him in an almost sotto voice that his days of killing and living were over. In all my years of carousing in these tank towns I've never seen anything like it."

Fred Bentley said. "All along folks here thought he was a no account barber named Lester something or other but instead he was the gunfighter, Rio Ennis."

"He got shot himself," Elsie Bentley said, "at least once, and after the killing ended, he holstered his gun and calmly exited the saloon, mounted a horse, and rode off."

Elsie Bentley touched Sarah's nearest arm. "Nathan is safe now. That's good news for sure. Nathan is safe."

Fred Bently waved at the falling rain. "He's out there somewhere, Rio Ennis all alone, in this awful weather, going to who knows where." Smiling, Fred Bentley looked down a little Abigail. "What do you think of all of this excitement, sweetheart? Of being in a town with the notorious Rio?"

Feeling numb, Sarah lessened her grip on Abigail's hand enough that Abigail broke free of her mother and started running and stumbling and running again in the rain and the mud in the direction she had seen the lone rider go. "Daddy," she shouted, her words vibrating against the drumming rain, "take me with you."

THE END

 

David Harry Moss has had numerous stories in varies genres published in print and online - Currently he lives in Pittsburgh but he has also lived in Minneapolis and Arizona where he attended Arizona State University - In Arizona he roamed all over the state from the Navajo Indian Reservation to border towns such as Nogales - His western stories - The Bad Gun and Desmond's Vow can be found in The Western Online.

 

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