GOLD HEN (a short story)
This isn't a blog post. It's a short story just for you. My heart is all over this and to be completely transparent, I've had to stop reading it because it makes me cry every time. EVERY TIME. But that's me. It's a personal story packed with Romance, Murder, Love, Pain and Vengeance. I'm both nervous and excited to share it with you.
It was written for the Western Anthology I mentioned a couple of weeks ago (Eight Gunshots). The Kickstarter was sadly unsuccessful, so I'm hoping that you'll take a chance and give it a few pages. I'm extremely proud of the work and I hope that this is the first of many pieces of short prose fiction to come.
Feel free to share and my deepest thanks for reading. ❤
By Christopher Charlton
He had smiled, at first, when he approached the clearing. The man’s gruff-bearded grin wore side to side under the flat brim of a black gambler’s hat as he tipped it toward Henry.
The collapsing sun chased down a thick of trees. Oklahoma Territory. A dense buffer against the heat that had rested square on Henry’s shoulders that day as he drove his family over the plains. The little ones, Davey and Carol Sue, were out gathering firewood and kindling before supper while his wife, Jess, was around the side of their wagon, unpacking the salted meat and vegetables they’d gathered for their journey.
Henry stood straight against the wind as the man’s horse stepped closer.
“I said, ‘Evenin’.” The bearded man spoke again, this time without the courtesy of a hat tip.
“And what a blessed evenin’ it is, sir. What can I do for you?” Henry replied, peering up to the mount.
“Hell, I don’t know.” The man in the black gambler’s hat shuffled in the saddle of his thoroughbred and Henry saw the flash of nickel. It was one of Samuel Colt’s finest and he’d wanted him to see it to gauge his response.
Fire lit up the side of Henry’s cheeks and a shiver shook through him. One cautious step back and hands splayed out. The move was recorded. Henry Tillus was not a threat.
“You a preacher?”
“That’s right, sir.” Henry’s collar was only partially blocked by his cowered head.
“Speak up, preacher, I cain’t hear ya.” The man’s revolver shown toward the sky now. Toward God.
“Y-yes.” His throat caught fear and panic.
“I cain’t kill a Preacher on a Sunday. But… You might not die ‘til tomorrow.” He smiled again. The creases in his face became a spear, trapping a twisted carousel of rotten teeth.
Jess came around the wagon quietly, with her hands up, showing bravery in surrender. Her long brown hair in a bun and her soft blue dress came into view. Henry felt a pit in his stomach.
“Hello, darlin’.” The man’s eyes were quiet crescents of glare formed in the sinking sun, shining on Jess and then back to Henry. His arm shot out quick. A single bullet. A thunderstroke to Henry’s ribs.
Henry Tillus opened his eyes, listening to the small, still drizzle falling around the eaves of his home. It was 1893 again. A cool August morning. He drew on the ceiling, fighting to shake the dream. The second night in a row it held him hostage.
He was hard pressed to understand why it had returned so suddenly and with such vigor after all these years. A burning reminder of the pain and recovery he’d pushed through, raising the children on his own and tending their small farm. Making sure they got off to school and that they had everything they needed. Sometimes a little more. He liked to spoil them when he could, but never too often. A remnant of Jess that lived on.
It was Mickey Sullvaine that had come that day in the Oklahoma Territory. Caught between thick timber and a high-saddled gambler with a heart of coal.
Henry ran a hand over his ribs just to be sure it was a dream, then cornered the energy to sit up and get in motion, slinging his legs over the left side of the bed. The right side was for Jess and always untouched. Not so much as a foot wandered over in twenty years.
The wood slat floor creaked when it rained. The cold felt good on his hardened feet and the grain was especially smooth there, where he’d planted them day after day. In a way, paying tribute to the life he’d forged on his own. There was no God as far he was concerned and if there was, he was a son of a bitch.
Along the foot of the bed was a gray cedar chest and on top of it, Henry’s overalls, folded neatly. He’d made his peace with tidiness, at least. One leg and then the other before pulling up and fastening the straps over his shoulders. Wool socks and farm-worn boots. As he raised up he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. A shadow of the man he used to be, with a frail, white beard. He’d hardly recognized his own face and wondered how long it had been since he’d bothered to look.
As he’d gotten on in age, the townsfolk had started to call him “Old Hen”, short for “Old Henry”. At first, it stung a bit. He’d always associated an old hen with a woman whose children had gone off to make lives of their own, but after a while, he’d just saunter on, wave and laugh. A little chuckle to himself that anyone had even cared enough to give him a nickname. It was better than being shot dead in the mud. Some days, anyway.
The folds of the dream washed back over him. Old Hen gave a soft sigh and let it carry him away for a moment. He loved seeing her, even in such a broken and damning way.
His legs moved like stiff crutches down the long hallway toward the kitchen. “Not today, you old bastards. I’ve got too much work to do.”
The fire-hot coffee was still warming Old Hen’s stomach as he stepped out onto the covered porch. It was the third Saturday of the month and that meant Davey and Carol Sue would be coming for dinner. He looked forward to those days the most. Davey worked as a teacher and had married a beautiful, young nurse named Jennifer. Their two little boys were full of adventure and spirit. Carol Sue had an eye for business, opening her own General Store near Fort Wyatt with her fiancé, Robert, who’d asked him outright if courtship was a possibility and having his heart in the right place had been enough for Old Hen to oblige.
Generally, the young ones would each bring a dish and it was up to Old Hen to provide the main course for the meal, depending on the timing and the season. He didn’t like his odds of catching a chicken with his legs as pained as they were and thought to check if there was any beef or lamb that might do.
The morning’s shower had stopped, and a barrel of fog rolled between the hills just beyond the property line. An aged apple tree topped the closest hill. Old Hen saw young blooms of Davey and Carol Sue running toward it, disappearing in the mist. Another wave crashing around him. They’d bring back a bushel, each of them with an apple wedged in their teeth like a roast pig, grinning and laughing.
Old Hen pulled a straw hat off the back of his wooden rocker. It was frayed at the edges and the color had washed out of it long ago, but it still did the job and he put it in its place atop his head. One step off the porch and then another. He cupped a hand to verify what his eyes and ears had already told him. The rain was done and as the sun burned through it, the heat would pick up. A dripping heat where shade offered no impunity.
After the bullet burned through Henry, there was a shock of black. Then a warm coat of blood on the ground around him. The sound of Jess yelling somewhere far off. His face was in the dirt and leaves, drilling a mile down before his children’s echoed calls drug him back up to the surface. A crimson vein struck out of Henry as he raised a hand. The pain was real then. Quick and sharp, though he’d hemmed it in as best as he could for Carol Sue. Her coarse screams anchored him to a new, wild and hardened existence. It was Davey, the oldest, who worked to get his father to safety, helping him in the back of the wagon and then driving their coach toward the last embers of sunlight.
He was in and out for while on that next, unplanned leg of their journey. Fever and flashes of the man grabbing Jess and riding away, while trying to guide Davey and get a sense of what was going on. He couldn’t claim which direction they were heading or how long had it been. The next gap was the longest and assuredly most difficult on the kids.
Henry was being carried. The stars and moon never came into focus, but he recognized them just the same. There was a good amount of talk around him, but it was like a conversation in another room and none of the words made it all the way in.
As the barn door swung open, three chickens scurried away with a squawk and stir of feathers. They were always startled or annoyed by his entrance. It was as much a part of his daily ritual as getting out of bed and a hot cup of coffee.
“Well, go on then! What’re ya hanging around the door for anyway? You know I’ll be up and on my way eventually.”
Old Hen checked their food and water before heading around to the back of the coop for eggs. Few and far between these last weeks, but plenty enough for him. He’d often share them with Clancy Hearndon down in Somerset when he needed supplies from town or save them for the children if it was one of their visiting weekends.
It was Clancy that had saved Henry all those years ago. He was good with medicine and just by luck, directly in the path that Davey had led them. Not only had Clancy removed the bullet, but sewn him up and kept his children in their own health while he healed and bled out the last of the bad blood. Henry had owed him everything and despite that, turned a soft ear when he’d tried to talk him out of going after Mickey Sullvaine.
“You’re the most stubborn ‘you-know-what’ I’ve ever met.” Clancy whispered as he removed Henry’s empty bowl of stew from the kitchen table. His children were in the next room by the fire listening to Clancy’s wife recite tall tales with Carole Sue in her arms – amenable and still.
“I have to know if she’s alive.”
“The local Sheriff –”
“The local Sheriff’s gonna hang a poster. We both know that.”
“You could hire a man. A bounty hunter.”
“Hire him with what? Everything I put my name on is out in that wagon and I already owe you my life. How do you suppose I repay that?”