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?”
“Was I supposed to leave you there? Let me worry about what I do and why. You don’t owe me a thing, but you owe them somethin’.” Clancy pointed to the fireside yarn his wife was unravelling for Davey and Carol Sue. “They need to see you’re alright and there’s no danger of you takin’ off. You’re their rock, whether you want the job or not. It’s been almost a week now and I can’t pretend to know the crater you’re carryin’ inside you. Only time can fill it, but don’t walk out on them for a piece of somethin’ you might never find or regret findin’ if you do.”
“You’re a good man and that’s how I know you’re gonna tend to them like they were your own. I may have been struck down, but I’m going after her.” Henry staggered to his feet and pulled the white ribbon out of his preacher’s collar, “And I’ll burn that man to the ground, so the Devil knows where to find him.”
Looking back, as another wave of memories washed his footprints away, Old Hen wasn’t proud of the decision. His little ones deserved better, but blinded by rage and pain, he traveled the only path he could see at the time, surrounded by flames that boiled his blood. He had never before, nor since, been so compelled to harm another living being.
Old Hen placed each egg delicately in the wire basket. He had soft hands. Not made for the work of a farm, but still despite it, they held a cool whisper about them. They’d often find the back of Jess’ arm and send a shiver down to her wrist.
“The Lord’s gonna remember your evil ways!” she’d howl and then flash a warm smile, taking his hands in hers before kissing the backs of each finger. “I love you, Henry Tillus.”
Henry held his rifle on Mickey Sullvaine. Fire in his eyes, heart and gut. He ground his hand into the stock so hard, he thought it might splinter under the pressure, but came out of it quick and searched around for a sign of Jess. All he caught were awkward stares and the gasps of old women.
He’d been dead two days. The hangman’s noose and the flies at his eyes told the rest of the story. Vomit down the front of his shirt and full load in his pants. Sullvaine had done his last cruel deed and met the Devil head-on, like a match struck by a bolt of lightning.
Old Hen rinsed the brown speckled eggs carefully before laying them out to dry on a towel. He seasoned the lamb for dinner and shuffled across the kitchen for another crisp of bacon from the day before. The sun was up proper now and there’d be swift Hell to pay if he didn’t feed the rest of the farm before Carol Sue arrived. She always begged him to sell the land and stay with her, where she could keep a sharp eye on him.
He couldn’t get around like he used to, she’d say. He’d be fine as a dandy if she’d leave him be, he’d say back, under a smiling white beard. He thought sure a slow death would be upon him without the daily duties at his back and his full attention on each rigid step.
Davey took the last of his cows the previous winter for fear he’d get knocked over or trampled, but he still had the sheep, goats and four pigs left to keep the chickens company. If any of his children had known that he’d fallen in June and struggled to pull himself out of the muck, they’d be gone too.
Henry combed the town of Stern Creek from cook house to outhouse looking for Sweet Jess, asking her name and begging details from stone faces that had none to give. He burst in the Sheriff’s door, working hard to find his breath. Everyone in the gut gave a wild stare as he leaned on the birch desk.
“The man out there.”
“Mickey Sullvaine,” the Sheriff answered.
“He have a woman with him?”
No answers came. Just open mouths blowing wind that turned Henry around, and as quick as he came, he rode back to his children, shaming himself for what had been nearly two weeks of distance between them. He had the gift of knowing that the grinning, bearded man couldn’t hurt Jess any more than he already had, but the fire raged on. He wanted to pull that trigger. He wanted answers and he wanted his life back the way it had been. Lips on soft hands and full fool hearts that never knew a touch of evil.
Just as Clancy had predicted, his wound was hot and swollen without proper care and just as Henry had predicted, his young ones were well taken care of in his absence. A truancy that would never be repeated.
And so, the next day, after a restless night, the family packed up and headed down a winding road with plenty of thanks to Clancy and his wife for what was kindness beyond kindness. Two drops in an empty heart. Henry fought hard off those tears until his babies slept. It was a quiet time and beside him, where Jess once sat with her head on his shoulder and an arm wrapped around his, a cold time, too.
Old Hen stared directly into the eyes of Gus, the stubbornedest goat on the whole farm. Gray fur with a black stripe right between his bulging oblong eyes.
“BLLLAAAAAHHH”, Gus said.
“BLAH yourself,” Old Hen said back, carrying on with his work. The full morning had been washed in these dreams. “Try feedin’ yourself sometime. Tell me how that works out.”
“BLLLLAAAHHHH”, Gus replied, unmoved by the suggestion.
He hung the empty bucket on a hook by the side of the fence and looked out at that aged apple tree. Just a haze beyond it still. Old Hen decided carefully before heading that way.
“How come we don’t go to the church no more?” Davey asked, holding a woven basket of apples he’d carried from the tree. Henry sat on the porch while food simmered inside.
“Anymore.” Henry corrected him but didn’t look up. Couldn’t, in fact.
“Teacher said if we don’t pray, Momma might never come back.”
“She said that, did she? Go on and wash up for supper, now.”
“Is this enough apples for a pie?”
“Looks to be, little man. Lots of hungry people out there that aren’t lucky enough to have food on their tables though, so let’s see if we can feed them first.” Henry got up to hold the door for him.
Davey was getting taller and smarter about the world but held tight to the idea of Jess coming back for them. He didn’t know what Davey understood of death or if he’d chosen to ignore it and leaned toward hope. In his heart, Henry was waiting too.
He served Davey and Carol Sue a hot plate, got them off to bed after their homework, then tossed and turned all night. The dreams were common then. The first two years, it was the only thing Henry saw when he closed his eyes.
The next morning, he took the children to school personally and had a few words with that teacher. Some not-so-kind words. After that, she kept her opinions to herself. Henry held that everyone had a right to their own thoughts, but when moved to voice and aimed at someone else, that was where the trouble began.
Old Hen hobbled uphill toward the apple tree. When his knee gave a buckle, he figured he’d better have a rest about half way. He sat, looking back on his farm. The memories, both good and bad were there. Bitter nights alone. Sunny days watching Carole Sue pick dandelions and dance in a warm breeze.
It hadn’t been for nothing. Jess wasn’t there and wasn’t coming back, but Old Hen had done what he could when it came down to it.
Thunder shook the ground and heat lightning moved like red silk through the black clouds. Beyond it was a massive funnel, pushing right toward Henry, his children, his farm – everything he cared for. All that was left. Debris from neighboring farms filled the sky. A wall of dust and dirt closing in.
Henry stared at the behemoth, lost in it, until Carol Sue started to cry. A picket fence post screamed over their heads. Without a second thought, he took Carol Sue under his arm and grabbed Davey by the wrist, practically dragging him to a gulley behind the house. Rushing through the woods, Henry leapt over downed branches and mossy stones until he found an uprooted tree to hide them under. It wouldn’t save them if they were in the path, but it would block some of the falling debris if it came down to it.
“Stay there!” Henry shouted. A gust took his hat.
Carol Sue screeched, and Davey begged him not to go. Henry looked at the house and the farm. Animals running free. Then back to his children. He swore he’d never leave them again.
The corner of the roof started to lift up. The sharp crackle of tearing wood and whine of ripped nails.
Henry covered them like a blanket and did something he didn’t think possible – he prayed.
Instinct, maybe. Or fear. Either way, he appealed for their safety. That they would grow old and have families of their own. As the tornado bore down on them, closer and closer, he felt that fire again.
The cinder had caught a flame. He wanted to curse God for all the loss he’d experienced, and here he was, back to take more. It was never enough. He’d ordered Henry tested and tested good.
He raised his head and shouted. “What do you want from me?!”
The wind barreled over them like a freight train.
“Hell, I never killed the man! You know I wanted to, but I never did it! Never found Jess and I blame you for that! You hear me?!”
Henry held Davey and Carol Sue tight, preparing to never let go, even if they’d been pushed up into the air and scattered across the plains.
When he looked over his shoulder again, through slit lids, he saw that the storm had turned. In the next field over, the funnel broke apart. The winds died down. He waited until the sounds of the birds returned before he loosened his grip.
Henry clamored to his feet, children in tow, and wiped the mud from his face.
The roof would need repairs and the animals rounded up, but they’d been spared. The little ones would probably enjoy herding the stock anyway. His furrowed brow eased a bit at the thought. And while he wasn’t ready to go back to his preaching ways, he felt the mountain he’d been so furiously fighting to climb had leveled off a bit.
Old Hen got to his feet and faced uphill, raising the brim of his hat. The soft gray clouds held spots of blue as they diminished. All he’d wanted was a nice day with Davey and Carol Sue. To hear them laughing and telling stories over a table of food that they could share in kindness and gratitude. And to see his grand-children racing around the table, too impatient to eat, or ready for that fresh apple pie even before the meal had been served.
Old Hen climbed the hill to that apple tree on special occasions to talk with Jess. When he was feeling lonesome or doubtful. When he couldn’t turn to God, he turned to her and longed that she could hear him.
“I never gave up on you. Despite it all and the advice of civilized men. Every day, I hoped you’d find your way home. I guess I’m just stubborn or maybe a fool.”
He rested a hand on a low branch of the tree and looked over the thinning fog in the valley.
“Henry.” The soft whisper touched his jaw line and tears drew to his eyes. It was time. Finally.
Old Hen turned his head slow with a glowing smile and sparkling gaze that he wished would dry so he could see her more clearly. As beautiful as the day they’d met. Her dark copper hair touched easy by the wind. To be seen by her was a gift that could never be taken away from him.
“Jess,” was all he could muster before the dam fell away. With it, washed out years of pain, questions and anger. The fire that he’d kept burning for so long, went out too. Right there in her arms. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“It’s alright now. It’s gonna be alright.”
“But how? Why now?”
“Come with me, Henry.”
Jess took his hand and they walked together down the hill, toward the house. As he looked back, he saw others following along, stepping through the mist. And the children too, on coach, coming home for a meal with their father. They would all be together again.
She stood there with him in the bedroom, her hand on his back and he removed his hat as he understood.
Old Hen, as full of heart as the sun was heat, lay silent and still. His cold face and white beard resigned sunken and thin. He’d shown gratitude despite his losses, kept his promises and worked a long, hard life with soft hands.
He put an arm around Sweet Jess and wiped away the last of his tears. Behind them filed generations of family, long passed, to pay their respects. To see how he’d lived and now loved.
Davey and his family bowed quiet with running tears. Carol Sue by her man as she held her father’s hand. Delicate but still strong to the day he found peace.
Jess beamed at her family with pride and adoration, then again with a comfort and calm. She led Henry out of the bedroom and down the hall, past fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers in a rush and a blur until they were once again under the sun. Up on the hill, the apple tree where they had communed now held a rich, yellow glow. A brilliance just beyond it awaited them.
The entire world seemed somehow more precious and fragile to Henry and they talked as they ambled to the light.
“I never thought I’d… I was so lost without you.”
“It wasn’t so long, was it?” She brushed back his hair.
“It felt like an eternity.”
“It was a blink compared to the time that we’ll have together. And in another blink, our children. And then their children and we’ll have all the time we need to meet them and hear their stories.”
“I turned my back on God. Will he still take me?”
She smiled. “He’s so proud of you. You did what you had to and not many can say that. You’re rare gold, Henry Tillus.”
They walked a bit further toward the light beyond the apple tree with his hand in hers. It was younger just then. Softer than it ever had been.
“Let’s go home, Jess.”