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Published on Friday, January 20, 2012

The Storekeeper's Town

By Paul Peppers

 

The sheriff stood outside the hotel nursing a cup of buttermilk, a line of which decorated his upper lip.

"By God sheriff those trappers just came in my store and raped Anne- did it in broad daylight."

   

"Good morning Mr. Wallace," said the lawman.

"Sheriff," Jake said, "they are over at the Diamond right now. I just seen them go in; you got to arrest them."

The sheriff sighed and looked him in the eye briefly. The weathered boards of the porch groaned in complaint as he shifted his bulk.

"Calm down, J.W. They don't look to be in any kind of a hurry to leave. Besides old Bob is out to the General's place investigating the disappearance of some livestock. When he gets back-which will be any time now- we'll get the men together and arrest the lot of them." Pausing, the sheriff burped un-decorously. "Is the girl all right?"

"I took her to the doc's place. He said she'll recover physically but, she's in a coma and hasn't come out of it yet. With the way her mind is, sheriff- you know- the doctor won't promise anything. He said she may never come out of it."

"Well," he said, "doubtless she will recover. Women have been doing this kind of thing since Eve picked the first apple."

The storekeeper felt his face grow hot. "What in hell are you saying? You're a fool, Bill Higgins. They raped my girl. Maggie Pendleton was there. Ask her about it."

The Sheriff tapped the side of his battered hat with an index finger. "Anne has a child's mind in a grown woman's body. "Who's to say whether or not she don't enjoy the attention?" He held up a warning hand at the storekeeper's sputtered response. "Anyway, Maggie said your girl was kind of flirting with those trappers, and they ain't like the rest of us. Living in those damn hills like animals the way they do. They don't come down for months sometimes years at a time. It doesn't take much to set them off."

"I wouldn't have left her but for Maggie being there," Jake said. I went to the back to get some supplies and when I came back one of them trappers-the big black haired man with all the scars- had Anne on the floor with her dress half tore off; he was, he was...

Looking into the distance the lawman adjusted his gun belt. Jake noticed that the belt was on the last notch and, for the first time in years he took a good look at the man. The sheriff hadn't bothered to shave that morning. Whiskers were prominent on his beefy face along with a rash of black heads that looked to prefer his nose over the rest of his face; a gravy stain on one lapel completed the picture. He realized then that the law wasn't going to be any help. Too many free meals at Bee's had softened the sheriff's courage along with his belly.

Nevertheless, he had to try. He clutched the sheriff's arm. "The people in this town pay you a salary to enforce the law, Sheriff. I pay more than most; are you going to stand here and do nothing?"

The sheriff made a face like he tasted something bad. With a thumb and forefinger he removed the hand from his sleeve then spit into the street. "Talking about nothing," he said, "Maggie told me you stood by and did nothing while they done it. His voice dripped with contempt. They ain't many men could have stood by while that went on."

Jake felt his face flush with shame. He could still feel the sting where the big trapper had backhanded him across the mouth. The two other strangers with him had stood by impassively. One trapper Jake remembered with horror had been rhythmically squeezing his groin through soiled buckskins as he looked on.

"You just take it easy now old man," the trapper had said. "No need for a killing but I will cut her if you make me." He pulled a heavy knife from his belt and held it in front of the girl's terrified eyes. Her struggles ceased immediately as she stared mesmerized at the blade.

"No, no," Jake stammered, "No, don't hurt her. She's just a child. I mean she's not right in her mind. She doesn't understand."

The mountain man's scarred face split with a grin showing tobacco stained teeth. Jake knew if pushed, the trapper would do what he'd threatened. He backed away a few cautious steps. "Don't hurt her," he said. "Please."

"Just you mind what I say," the trapper said. "Me and the boys will learn her. "

One of the 'boys' laughed, blowing snot onto his upper lip- which he wiped on a dirty sleeve.

"Virgil there." The trapper indicated to the snot blower with the knife. "He ain't quite right in his own mind either since that horse kicked him." He laughed. "Hell, it's like they's meant to be together."

Jake kept trying to block the nightmare images from his mind. He wanted more than anything to forget, but knew he never would. The memory burned like a cattle brand. He didn't know how they could go on after what had happened, but maybe they could put it behind them and forget someday...

"If you are in such an all fired hurry," the sheriff snorted, "I'll deputize you, then you can just go on over to the Diamond and arrest those boys."

Hanging his head, the storekeeper turned to leave.

"She can't stay a child forever J.W.," the sheriff called after him, "It ain't natural."

Hinges squeaked as he opened the lid of the old chest. The smell of mothballs and cedar wafted out like memories of the past. Moving some clothing aside, he pulled out an old oil stained bundle, uncovering a pair of matching Colt revolvers holstered in a weathered pommel rig. The bundle was heavier than he remembered, but the old Colts were heavy guns. The first true revolvers, they weighed close to five pounds each. He held the guns in trembling hands smoothly drawing one to check the action. He had cleaned the guns with care before stowing them in the cedar chest years before and they were in better shape than he expected. When he'd put the pistols in the chest, he had never intended to take them up again. He had tried to make Gretchen happy; had carefully packed away the past to make a new life for his family. It's what she had wanted, but she was gone now. She had died leaving him to raise the girl alone.

"I need you old friend," he said to the pistol. Smiling, he felt strong for the first time in a long time.

  

He had promised the Lord never again to raise his hand again to do violence toward another, and he had kept the promise. But now they had attacked his girl. He glanced for a moment at the medal where it rested on his uniforms. "President Polk's tin star," his wife had called it. "It won't grow you a new leg," she'd said. Well, the money he'd received with the medal had helped start the store. Now the strangers had tried to take that from him, too. He turned the handgun from side to side admiring the solid feel of it.

He remained crouched at the chest, ignoring the throbbing pain in his leg as long as he could. Rising from the unaccustomed position, he limped across the small room to the oak table and dropped his weight gratefully into a chair. No time to rest, he thought, and as quickly as he could, he loaded the guns.

The holstered pistols were hung across one thin shoulder. They swung, slightly reassuring him as he moved. The pommel rig was designed to hang on a saddle horn, but the rig had served him well in the past and would serve him now. It was the only holster he had and would either do the job or not. The weight of the guns felt good as he moved toward the saloon.

The stranger's horses were still tied up at the Diamond, and he scowled. The bastards thought no one had the guts to stand up to them. He tasted the unaccustomed word. The goddamn bastards would destroy everything he cared for without a second thought and leave him with ashes.

Expecting trouble, the people in town were scarce. Like a bunch of prairie dogs or gophers, they had gone to ground. It was unnaturally silent and the streets were empty, but they watched-he knew they watched.

Crossing the dusty main road to the boardwalk, he steeled himself against the pain in his leg as he hitched his way up the few steps to the boardwalk. The peculiar sound of his scraping foot struck a discordant note on the chill air.

From safety, the sheriff and deputy watched his progress. He could feel their eyes gauging him as he passed- yet they said nothing- no offer of help, no warning, nothing.

He looked briefly at them knowing they thought him a fool, a coward, and a cripple. Half a man they thought him and he knew it. Maybe they had it right, he thought. Gretchen had wanted him to change, and it had been easy. It had been all too easy to re-invent himself. Too late, he saw the trap he had fallen into. When they looked at him, people saw the meek crippled storekeeper, and now he had become a mere image of himself. The man he saw reflected when he looked into other people's eyes is the man he had become.

The first day he arrived in town, Gretchen, already with child, had been so hopeful- a new marriage, a new town, and a new life. It had been a great day for them, and he had always felt good when he remembered it. Now though, he frowned at the memory of that day which had started him on the road to this humiliation.

He stopped in front of the swinging doors of the saloon, surprised that he had arrived so quickly. The stinking air roiled from the place of so many different foul smells that it was hard to identify them all. Sweat and filth were predominant, he decided as he filled his hands with the Colts, shucked the holster rig off the pistols and pushed his way through the doors.

Walking a few feet into the saloon, he stopped, ready with the guns pointed slightly down, his arms relaxed. He felt calm and untroubled. Slowly the room sputtered into silence.

One of the two whores that managed to earn a living from the place sat on the knee of the black haired trapper. He recognized the dress she wore; it was one he had ordered for her.

A few quiet seconds ticked by before the bartender spoke. "J.W.," he stuttered. "I ain't seen you since the last t-t-town meeting. How are you doing?"

"Howdy Tom," he said, keeping the black haired trapper pinned under his gaze. "I don't plan on causing you any trouble. My business is with these strangers."

The few bar patrons he could see began to ease slowly away from the three strangers. J.W. didn't look for any help from them. He knew them all. Knew their aches and pains, how much corn meal and flower they used a month. Hell, he knew what size pants they wore and had sold most of them the boots they had on. He'd passed the time of day with each of them over the years. He thought about this for a second. Hell, maybe he didn't know them at all.

The big trapper took a look around and slammed the liquor bottle down, rocking the beat up round table on its uneven legs and causing those close by to jump in surprise.

"So, storekeeper," he said. "You come to shoot at us with them guns? Maybe you just want to show them off, maybe sell them or something?"

He heard a few nervous laughs but, they did not disturb him. Calm surrounded him. "You broke the law," he said. "Now you are going to answer for it. Stand up real slow like and we'll walk over to the jail. They ain't no reason for a killing, but I will shoot if you force me to."

"Who appointed you the law, Storekeeper?" the big mountain man said. "Looks like they forgot to give you your star. You cain't be the law without the star."

Jake tried not to think about what they'd done to Anne. It took all of his will power not to shoot. The triggers felt smooth and cool under his fingers. He ached to fire the pistols.

"Well no matter, we cain't go with you just yet. Me and this little girl here have some business to attend to." He squeezed the whore's breast with one massive hand causing her to gasp in pain. "I got an idea storekeeper. Why don't you go get that girl of yours, and we can have us a regular party?" The other two men rose from the table and stood beside him. "How about it, Virgil. You want to see the storekeeper's girl again?"

"Yeah paw, yeah. I like her-she was perty-I see her again," Virgil said. Beaming with idiotic glee, he began rubbing his groin with both hands, making comical moaning sounds of pleasure. The other two laughed uproariously.

Jake made no decision to do anything. Without conscious thought, he cocked both guns and fired them into the rubbing hands. He couldn't suppress a smile when he saw chunks of blood and meat smear the white-washed wall. Screaming in pain, the trapper fell, jerking and writhing to the floor. The screams somehow made the silence more acute.

"You had your chance," Jake said. "Now you're going to die." He fired at the black haired trapper, who threw the table over and dropped to the floor.

The man still standing pulled a gun as Jake fired another round. The bullet caught him high, ripping a chunk out of his neck and pitching him over a table where he lay un-moving in the pooling blood.

"Whoa now, storekeeper," said the remaining man. "Let's talk about this thing. The voice was stripped of its bravado; what remained was the stark fear of death. I'm willing to give myself up if you don't kill me," he said. The pleading voice was ripe with the stink of fear.

Jake limped toward the overturned table. His leg clinched as a spasm of pain lanced through it. He feared the leg would buckle under him, but he kept both guns aimed toward the voice. Moving forward cautiously, he could see the crouching man over the edge of the overturned table.

The big man was on his knees, holding up both hands. His right held the knife he had used at the store.

"Don't kill me," he begged, "don't kill me. Hell, all I have is this here knife-you can have it-we didn't mean no harm- me and the boys we was just trying to have a little fun is all. We didn't plan on doing no harm. We just got carried away."

Reaching out, Jake pressed the barrel of one of the Colts into the middle of the other man's forehead. The knife slipped from the man's nerveless fingers and clattered to the floor. "Please don't kill me," he begged. "I'm real sorry about your girl-we didn't know- I mean you're- you're just a storekeeper."

Jake pulled the trigger and watched as a red halo of blood and brains blossomed around the dead man's head.

"That's right," he said, as the body toppled over. "I'm just the storekeeper."

THE END

 

Paul Peppers is a diesel mechanic in Cartersville Georgia. He has an Associate of Applied Science Degree from Coosa Vally Technical college and is fifty-three years old.

 

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