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Published on Friday, January 16, 2014

Good From a Whiskey Bottle

By T.C. Barlow

 

Blake Sheppard tossed back another shot of whiskey and slammed the glass back on the bar. The man beside him grumbled and shot Blake a dirty look.

Blake pushed the shot glass toward the barkeep.

"Another, Johnny!" he yelled. The room spun, but he didn't care. The more he drank, the less he remembered. "A toast to my boy!"

Johnny wiped his hands on his apron, and poured Blake another shot.

"That won't cure your troubles," the stranger beside Blake advised. "You'll get nothing from a whiskey bottle."

Blake downed the second shot, wincing as it burned down his throat and up his nose. He slammed the glass down again.

   

"You sound like my wife. Now mind your own business."

"I'm makin' this my business." The man rose from his stool. "A man should be able to have a drink without being disturbed by a drunk toasting his crook of a son."

The saloon fell quiet, and several men dashed for the door. Blake rose, wavering, but the other man towered over him. He looked hard, weathered like the desert rocks outside.

"My boy had twice your grit," Blake snarled.

"Why? Because he killed a Chinaman?" the stranger asked. "Men with grit don't murder unarmed coolies, and they don't hold women hostage. Not even yellows."

Blake moved close enough that their chests brushed.

"That yellow is my wife."

The man put one finger in the center of Blake's chest and eased him back a step.

"And she left you," he said. "What kind of sorry excuse for a man can't even keep a yellow woman?"

Blake's hand strayed to his hip where his pistol used to hang, but they'd taken his gun when he entered the saloon. The stranger carried no visible piece.

"You and me need to take this outside," Blake said, poking him in the chest.

The punch came so fast Blake didn't even see it. The man's fist simply cracked on his jaw, and with the whiskey in him, Blake hit the floor an instant later. He fought to regain his feet, but fell back down, the room spinning.

Hands grabbed him on both sides, the stranger holding his right arm and Johnny grasping his left. They hoisted him to his feet and marched him to the door.

"I told you no trouble," Johnny said.

They threw him through the swinging doors, out into the hot, dry Arizona night. He tumbled down the steps into the dirt, then lay there, dust in his mouth, jaw aching, and tried to gather his thoughts.

He didn't get a chance. More men grabbed him, this time wearing kerchiefs across their faces, their hats pushed low, almost to their eyes. Someone punched him in the ribs, crushing the wind from his lungs. The men jerked him upright, and as they spun him around, he caught a glimpse of the man on his left. Between the black bandana and the black hat, all Blake could see where his eyes, dark as night and twice as cold. But those eyes he knew. He'd seen them before, he just didn't know where. He struggled to grasp the memory through the whiskey's brown haze, but pain exploded in his head, and darkness swallowed him.

 

*         *        *

 

He woke on his belly over the rump end of a horse. Rope bit into his wrists and ankles, and one around his midsection kept him on the mount like saddlebags. His head felt stuffed with sand, no doubt a leftover of the whiskey. Above him loomed the man in black, a wisp of brown hair dangling down to the black bandana around his neck. He must have sensed Blake stirring, for he looked down and Blake saw his face.

"Tom Elliot?"

The Elliot boy had grown in the last four years, but the pinched nose and rat-like eyes remained the same. The grin that crossed his lips spoke of cruelty and hate.

"The one and only," came Tom's nasal voice.

"I thought you were in jail."

"We got out," said the other man. He looked older—and fatter—than Tom. "Good behavior."

He and Tom guffawed.

"I've been planning my revenge for four years, Blake," Tom said. "I reckon this'll be fun."

"Revenge? For sending you to jail?"

"For killing my best friend."

"You think I haven't paid for that myself already? Jimmy was my son!"

Tom shook his head and tsked. "You haven't paid enough. Not yet."

They stopped then, and put Blake on his own horse, his hands tied in front of him. The other man rode with a Winchester across his lap, pointed at Blake.

Blake groaned. His head pounded with every step of his horse, and his mouth felt like new spun cotton. Tom trotted his horse close, pulled a whiskey bottle out of saddlebag, and handed it to Blake.

"Keep drinking, Blake. You'll need it."

Blake obliged him, savoring how the whiskey dulled the cutting edge of his hangover.

"Why are you doing this?" he asked.

"It's my fault Jimmy died. I should've shot you, but I froze. I let you kill him, and I spent the last four years regretting it. Now I'm gonna make amends. I know how to make your death hurt, Blake. In here."

He thumped his chest.

Blake took a long pull on the whiskey, then wiped his lips on his sleeve.

"Can't hurt me anymore than I hurt myself."

"Don't be so sure, Blake," Tom said. "I have quite a surprise waiting for you."

 

*         *        *

 

They rode for maybe another hour, into the hills outside of town, then stopped at the gaping mouth of an abandoned coal mine. Tom dismounted, while his partner helped Blake down. A third man emerged from the tunnel, squinting against the bright sunlight. He wore an old Navy revolver on his hip, and a black hat just like Tom's, but his cheeks held a blush, and not a hint of stubble.

Tom strode to Blake, and pointed to the cave.

"Go on inside. Walk in a straight line until the tunnel turns left. Once you round the bend, you'll see that surprise."

Blakeshot Tom a look, and walked into the tunnel, walking along the rails.The men followed, a few paces back, but Blake kept his eyes forward, unwilling to give them the satisfaction of seeing him check over his shoulder. If they were going to shoot him in the back, they would've done so already.As Tom had said, about twenty yards in the tunnel branched left, while the rail line went straight ahead. Blake turned left, feeling his way along the wall, seeing little more than a faint glow ahead. As soon as he rounded the corner, the light from two oil lamps made him squint. Two people sat against the tunnel wall, wrists and ankles bound. Blake clenched his fists and ground his teeth.

A Chinese woman shook out her, long, shimmering black hair, letting it fall on her red-and-white gingham dress. The dress he'd bought on their first anniversary. She watched him out the corner of her eye, unwilling to make eye contact. Her left cheek had swollen and turned the color of ripe plums. Beside her sat a boy of three or four with sandy brown hair and a jaw as strong and square as Blake's. He stared straight ahead, his almond-shaped eyes dark.

The woman sniffed at their approach.

"Chao Xing." Blake felt chips of ice in his tongue. "Never thought I'd see you again."

She raised her chin.

She motioned to the boy. "Tom Elliot thought you should meet your son."

The words hit Blake like a fist, doubling him over. His mind froze for a second, so he stopped and took another drink to melt the ice.

"That ain't my boy," he said. He knew the instant the words were out they'd been a mistake. Tears brimmed in the boy's eyes, and his lip trembled. Like his ma, though, he stuck out his chin and refused to look at Blake. "My boy's dead. He's someone else's."

"There is no one else," she snapped. This time she turned her razor-sharp glare on him. "When I left you, I was pregnant. You were drinking all the time, raging. You blamed yourself for shooting Jimmy. Or you blamed me, since you did it to save my life. Either way, we weren't safe."

Blake tried to hide the pain that wracked his heart, and turned his back to her.

"You never told me."

"You were always drunk."

Tom Elliot and his men moved into the light of the oil lamps, one of them shoving Blake closer to his wife. As his eyes adjusted, Blake scanned the chamber. A single timber beam rose from floor to ceiling, supporting a crossbeam that sagged under the weight of the rocks above. It looked as if it might collapse at any time. Old crates were stacked against one wall, and a few sticks of dynamite lay on the floor nearby. An old gondola rail car sat behind the beam.

Tom picked up one of the TNT sticks and shoved it between the crossbeam and rocky ceiling, about a foot from one of the oil lamps, its fuse hanging down like a tail.

"You killed your own son to save that coolie bitch," he said, "but I think I paid for it more than you did. Do you know what four years of guilt feels like, Blake? Four years of kicking yourself?"

Blake glanced at the dirt floor. "I know."

"I don't think you do," Tom went on. "You care about your whiskey, nothing else. So you choose which one of these two dies. You save the woman, I shoot your son. Want to save the boy? Just shoot his mama in the head. He'll hate you forever. Either way, when it's done I'm blowing this mine and leaving you to die slowly with your guilt."

Blake's heart pounded. He needed time to think, to make his whiskey-addled mind work. He kneeled in front of the boy, looking deep into his slate gray eyes. For an instant, Blake felt like he was looking in a mirror.

"What's your name, son?"

The boy met his gaze, but wrinkled his nose at the booze on Blake's breath. "Charlie Sheppard."

"My father's name was Charlie." He gave Chao Xing a sad smile. A tear cling to her lashes.

"I don't want my mama to die," Charlie said. He sounded so much like Jimmy it took Blake's breath away. "But I'm scared."

Blake stood and turned his back on everyone in the chamber. Like Tom, he'd spent the last four years regretting shooting his son. He relived it time and time again in his mind, analyzing and overanalyzing what he'd done until the guilt had driven him to drink.

A hand on his shoulder made him turn. Chao Xing stood beside him, her eyes locked on his.

"This is your chance," she whispered. "Save your son this time."

Blake nodded and faced Tom Elliot.

"Your beef's with me, not them. Let 'em go."

"That's not how it works," Tom laughed. He tossed a six shooter on the ground between them. "One bullet. Use it on her or I shoot your son."

He aimed his own gun at Charlie, his eyes wild like a cornered colt. Behind him, his men aimed at Blake.

Blake kicked himself. If he'd been sober, they'd never have gotten the drop on him. Slowed by whiskey, he couldn't beat all three of them, not with just one bullet.

He needed an edge.

He stepped toe to toe with Tom, whiskey bottle in his left hand. The other two men cocked their pistols, but Tom held up his hand and both stood still. Above Tom's head, the oil lamp flickered.

"You make up your mind, Sheriff?"

Blake swirled the whiskey in the bottle. "Yeah. I'll have another drink. But I won't do your dirty work."

Confusion flashed on Tom's face, which was all the hesitation Blake needed. He whipped the bottle up, smashing it on Tom's temple, drenching him in whiskey. Tom fired as he staggered backward. Blake's left shoulder rocked back, but he managed to dive to the right. Rolling, he snatched up the pistol, and shot the oil lamp.

A drop of burning oil hit Tom and the whiskey ignited like a torch. Tom screamed, dancing a grotesque jig where his arms flapped in his head bobbed from side to side. He didn't move fast enough though, and his flames lit the fuse on the dynamite.

Blake jumped to his feet and kicked Tom backward into the gondola car. Then he wheeled on the other two men, but they were rounding the tunnel's bend at full speed.

Blake rushed to Chao Xing and Carlie. He used the sharp edge of the broken bottle to saw at the rope around the boy's ankles.

Blake admired the boy's courage. Most children would be hysterical at this point, but not Charlie. He had his mother's courage and his big brother's grit.

The rope fell away from Charlie's ankles and Blake yanked him to his feet.

"I'll get your mother."

Charlie nodded and ran.

Blake glanced over his shoulder. Tom lay screaming in the muck cart, no longer burning, but unable to stop the pain. The fuse on the dynamite had only a few seconds left.

Blake didn't have time to cut her bonds, so he picked his wife up, tossed over his shoulder, and ran.

He rounded the corner just as the dynamite blew. The floor bucked beneath his legs, tossing him in the air. Chao Xing flew off his shoulders and landed with a grunt on the hard dirt floor. Blake managed to roll over on top of Charlie just as a downpour of rocks and dust fell from the ceiling. A cloud of smoke and dust billowed around the corner, and Blake pressed his hat over the boy's face so he could breathe.

When everything settled, Blake lifted the boy and set him on his feet. Charlie ran to his mother's crumpled form, crying. Blake joined him, and sighed in relief as his wife rolled over, coughed, and sat up.

"Wait here," he told her.

He jogged back around the corner to find a solid wall of collapsed rock. Through the rock came Tom Elliot's muffled cries of agony.

Blake rejoined his family.

"Tom won't bother us again."

Chao Xing nodded and Blake scooped them both up in a hug. That's when he noticed he still gripped the neck of the broken bottle in his left hand. Easing his family back, held up the shard of glass, and threw it against the far wall. It shattered into a dozen pieces.

"At least some good came from a whiskey bottle. Now let's go home."

THE END

 

T.C. Barlow is a retired Air Force senior non-commissioned officer who grew up in upstate New York, but has lived all over the world. He wrote his first novel at age fourteen, and has been writing ever since. He holds a Bachelor's degree in English from University of Nebraska at Omaha, and is pursuing his Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, genre fiction track, with Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, CO. His fiction appears on The Western Online, and in the anthologies "These Vampires Don't Sparkle" and "Zombiefied Reloaded" by Sky Warrior Books (as Chris Barili). He currently lives in Colorado Springs with his family.

 

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