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Published on Thursday, May 17, 2012

Keepsake No. 67

By Justin Lafreniere


James Vander took the swallow feather from his pocket and rolled the quill between his fingers, using the spaces between the cracked, old plumage to watch the Arizona desert left behind, with the tracks glaring in the sun, as if the caboose laid ties freshly as it went, marking the path back. Back to where, he didn't quite worry. Enough of the west. Home to Chicago, or Philadelphia. He'd even consider going to that bog of a capital in Washington, meet up with some debts he'd left unpaid and a few promises he'd broken. James found himself to be good at not delivering on promises, good enough that he took keepsakes for when he met his word.

"Vander, you paying attention out here?" Dennis Barnes poked his cigar back between his lips, adjusting it like it was a fat man scampering into a rabbit hole. Took a long drag and a long puff of smoke before he tossed it out along the railroad. It skipped, broke against the planks, and vanished, still there but gone. "Your job is to keep sure that no one follows us. You know who is on this train?" Peter Shea. "Peter Shea. You know what Peter Shea does?" Peter Shea killed a family in north Texas for their land. "He shoots sodbusters like you for practice. Like it's a potshot at rabbits. If so much as a yellow lizard comes near the tracks, shoot it."


"Kill them all. For the Lord knows those who are his."

"Exactly. A biblical man. I like that." Barnes headed back into the car, but stopped, his shadow stretching over James' book, left open on the steel floor. "What's this? Can you even read this thing?"

"Yes, I can." James reached for his book, but a big, meaty palm and abdominous frame blocked him. The covers flapped, showing a small signature on the inner cover, and the spine seemed to quiver like a bird calling out in its flight. The book dropped. The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure drifted and sunk in the desert, long gone in the wake of the train.

"Well that distraction's gone."

"That was a gift from my niece," James said. It stung to grip the rail of the train so tight, but he didn't let go. He had the urge to jump over the rail to get the book. His hat would fly off and his knees would break on the ties, and he'd have to crawl back for it. "Why would you do that?"

"I'll buy you a new one later. Why does it matter? Little girls and their books, family and their gifts. It's all rot anyway. Nothing means nothing."

James tucked the feather back into the pocket of his waistcoat and grabbed his rifle off the deck of the train. Now, he imagined, was as good a time as any. He fired and Barnes' shoulder exploded, his body falling into the car. James waited for one of the other guards, reacting to the shot, to work his way between the red seats. The rifle recoiled neatly and the young man dropped, his shirt speckled red. His eyes were still open, gasping at the world, when James walked over him.

In the narrow aisle leading up the train, Vander stopped and laid his gun across a black suitcase, his eyes tight and down the iron sights. The last guard's silhouette appeared in the window, the latch on door coming undone. The train, which had slowed after the first shots, rocked to a halt, and a round fragmented the gold frame over the door. The glass window shattered under the rapport of the marshal's gunshot. Something like the buzzing of a downed wasp nest passed by James' ear. He fired again. Nothing returned. The air grew quieter and quieter, a commotion dying down as he realized the huffing was his own.

James walked up two cars, into one that looked like it'd been painted with soot. Firewood crackled in the furnace, with wisps of smoke sneaking out the bottom of the poorly attached chimney. It was uncomfortably hot. He couldn't imagine how Shea, sitting shackled in a chair on the opposite side, had managed to stay with his skin looking so dry, cracking at the spaces where his lips faded into reddened, gaunt cheeks.

"Thanks, James. I knew I'd count on you. You owed me. You're just like me, I always told you, when you came to see me in jail. I count on you wanted him dead anyway and were just too lazy or kind to do it yourself. I'd killed your brother because he wasn't like me. He wasn't like me. Sold himself. You know how he was, had been since he got back from Baltimore. The land was mine to buy from, not some black-suited banker sitting a day's ride away. You knew he wasn't like us."

Shea's chest buckled at the impact of the round, his flesh making a sucking sound like what came from Anna's lips the first time James' ever given his niece a bottle of soda, at the World's Fair. The right ribs visible under the gapped skin looked like bleached tracks. Vander took out his feather and dragged the quill along the ribs, feeling the hollow scrape against the bone, the blood collect on the stem. He'd write Anna a note with it later, from back east. He wouldn't tell her about her father or her father's killer, but he thought she might know, might have that feeling, like already knowing how a story ends, even after the first sentence. Point up, he tucked it into his waistcoat. It'd make a nice keepsake during his walk back along the tracks to get his book.


Justin Lafreniere is a graduate of Queens University of Charlotte. He is the two-time winner of the Marjorie Blankenship Melton in Nonfiction and currently resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he works as a teacher.


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