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For your reading enjoyment check out the first two chapters.
It was a cold April morning in 2003, the day my world went south. It started like any other morning. My cheap wind-up alarm clock woke me at five AM; its tiny hammer beat against the small bells on the top of the alarm clock. Its loud ringing pounded through my brain bringing me up from a dead sleep. My cat Fluffy jumped up, landed on my chest, and said, “Meow.” I stroked her soft downy coat, set her on the floor, and turned off the alarm clock. Sitting up in bed, I leaned against the headboard rubbing sleep from my eyes. My feet found the floor. Goosebumps appeared on my legs and arms. The hardwood floor of my modest Manhattan apartment felt cold against my bare feet. Stifling a yawn, I put on my house slippers. I climbed out of bed, shuffled across the bedroom, out the door, and down the hall to the bathroom. I was wearing nothing but my boxer shorts.
Turning on the light, I drained my bladder and washed my hands using antibacterial soap. Finished with my hands, I looked in the mirror.
“Look at me. The wild man from Borneo.” The image in the mirror showed a tall skinny young man with a weak chin. It had a pocked marked face: remnants from old acne scars. My long blond hair cascaded around my shoulders and into my face. Standing five feet ten inches tall, I am not a very imposing figure. Usually, I wear my hair tied back in a ponytail. My nose is button-shaped and it looks too small for my face. The only good-looking thing about me is my blue-green eyes, I thought as I studied my reflection. Not exactly, the dashing figure that women go for.
My thoughts flash forward to the day ahead of me. My heart raced and my breathing accelerated. Sweat formed up in my palms. I hope Amy’s at work today. She’s been sick lately. God, please let it be a good day. Amy would be pretty if she knew how to dress and fix her hair. That’s why they pick on her too. She looks different. The widow to the bathroom stood open. A car backfired on the street making me jump. It sounded like a gunshot. Someone yelled and then the car sped away. The smell of the city drifted up from below. For a moment, I paused looking down at the street, and then closed the window.
I loved my work, but the people I worked with intimidated me. Most of them were bullies and the others looked at me with contempt. They called me names behind my back, like nerd or geek. Imagine that, a bunch of accountants calling someone else a nerd or a geek? Sometimes I heard them laughing behind my back. It used to make me mad, but I was too afraid to stand up for myself. Amy was the only person who was kind to me. She was like me, an outcast. Numbers were my life’s work. I had two passions in life: numbers and the written word. I made my living crunching numbers; I unwind by reading a good book. It doesn’t matter whether it’s, a science fiction novel, a mystery, or a Western. As long as the author tells a good tale, I’m hooked. At work, I would lose myself in the numbers. That was my way of dealing with the BS at the office. At home, I’d curl up on the couch with Fluffy in my lap and read a good book.
I didn’t go out much back then, except to the bookstore. Once in a while, I’d go to the movies. Riding the subway terrified me. Some tough-looking character always stared. It creeps me out when people stare. It makes me nervous, or it did back then. They mugged me once or twice and broke my nose once. When I would go to the movies, by the time I got off the subway I felt too keyed up to enjoy myself. When I got inside the theater I would have to rush to the toilet to throw up, but enough about me. Let’s get on with the day my world went south.
In the kitchen, Fluffy let out another meow. Taking a box of cat food from a cabinet, I filled one side of her dish with cat food. I took a carton of milk out of the refrigerator. I filled the other side of Fluffy’s dish with milk, and then poured myself a bowl of Honey Pops. Still, in my Boxer shorts, I sat at the kitchen table and ate my cereal. The Honey Pops tasted good. I love a bowl of cereal in the morning. My eyes wandered about my modest digs. My one-bedroom apartment near 96th and Columbus Avenue had a small kitchen. It also had a small bedroom and a modest-sized sunken living room. The hardwood floors and the balcony were what attracted me to the apartment. At night, I used to sit out on the balcony and read. It made me feel removed from all the nonsense below. My apartment was on the fifth floor. One thing I liked about the building is that it had a twenty-four-hour doorman. No one got in the building unless they lived there.
Finished with my cereal, I put the bowl in the sink and put a pot of water on to boil for tea. Shuffling back to my bedroom, I put on a pair of black slacks, a blue dress, a shirt, and a pair of black dress shoes. In the bathroom, I brushed my hair and tied it back in a ponytail using rubber bands. I brushed my teeth and gargled with Listerine. Back in the kitchen, the teakettle started to whistle. I took down a Barnes & Noble ceramic cup and poured myself a cup of scalding hot tea. I put in two tablespoons of sugar and a dab of honey. Bringing the cup to my mouth, I took a tentative sip.
“Son of a bitch!” I said blowing across the top of the cup trying to cool the hot liquid. “Fluffy, why don’t you catch a mouse or something while I’m at work? You’re getting lazy and fat,” I said to the feline while I waited for the tea to cool. Fluffy gave me an indignant look. I took a bagel from the frig put it into the toaster and waited for it to pop. My stomach rumbled. Fluffy jumped when the bagel popped and ran into the hallway. I laughed. Fluffy dropped a bomb in her litter box. A foul odor filtered into the kitchen. “Let’s have a little courtesy here. Cover that,” I said. Buttering my bagel, I poured myself another cup of tea and headed into the living room. Fluffy strutted into the room. I sat down on my beige love seat and turned on the brass lamp on the end table. I picked up an old tattered novel setting next to the lamp and took a bite out of my bagel. It tasted delicious. Fluffy jumped onto my lap and started to purr. The novel was a Western that was now out of print entitled: the Mojave Kid’s Last ride. It was one of those serial deals where the author writes several books using the same characters. This was the last of the series.
The reason for waking up at five every morning was to give me time to read before leaving for work. Out the door at seven AM, I would head down to the bus stop and take the bus to the subway station. I opened the book to where I had left a bookmarker from the night before and read a chapter. My eyes darted to my front door. My pulse quickened.
“Come on. Quit being stupid,” I said to myself. My mind wandered, my thoughts turning to Tom Baxter. I hope Tom doesn’t show up for work today. Not likely. Tom shows up every day, I thought. Tom was my nemesis. When I was hired on at the firm, I was twenty-four years old. I had worked my way through junior college and accounting school. Tom was hired out a year later. Tom was a big fat bully. He must have had a complex about his weight. Tom tried to make up for it by bullying other people. One time after he was first hired, I played a practical joke on him. Right now, I don’t even remember what it was. Everyone laughed. Tom’s face turned red but he didn’t say anything. He just walked away. Later, he caught me outside, shoved my head against the wall, and bloodied my nose. My hands balled up into fists at my sides, my heart hammered in my chest and my face reddened. I felt like spitting nails, but I didn’t do anything. I stood paralyzed with fear.
From then on, Tom and others like him made my life a living hell. The only respite was the work itself. Boy, could I lose myself in the numbers. At lunchtime, I would eat at my desk and dive into the particular novel that I was reading at the time. Pushing thoughts of Tom Baxter aside, I finished my bagel and wiped crumbs from my shirt. I continued to read. I reached the part in the book where the outlaws take the town. It seemed so real that I could almost hear the gunfire. The thought of actually being in a shootout terrified me. The main character, a Civil War veteran they called the Mojave Kid, was tough. He wasn’t afraid of anything. He could outshoot, outfight, and outride anyone in the territory.
The character reminded me of what my mother said my father was like. She said that he wouldn’t take shit from anyone. My father was a war veteran also. He died in Vietnam when I was a baby. My mother was an alcoholic who would fly into a rage and beat me at the least provocation. The smell of her sleeping covered in vomit and urine was still fresh in my mind. Then there was the sting of her belt across my back. None of her boyfriends gave a rat’s ass about me. Growing up, I never had much in the way of a father’s influence.
There was one guy who took an interest. He used to take me fishing and to the park to throw a baseball around. He seemed like a nice guy, but my mom’s drinking and raging forced him to leave. When my mom went on a tangent, she would scream for hours. The day he left, I thought I was going to explode. It was her fault. The only man I ever looked up to as a father left because of her.
Sometimes on rare occasions, I would venture out on the streets. I would see families out together. Some of them seemed so happy. It made me wonder what my life would have been like if my father had lived. Maybe Mom wouldn’t have turned into a drunk. My mother died when I was thirteen. I wasn’t sad. Somehow, I felt relieved. The state sent me to live with my grandmother. She was okay, but there weren’t kids in the neighborhood that I could play with. Most of the kids at school picked on me, so I dived into the world of books. Early on, I discovered that I had a gift with numbers. You show me a math problem and I see the answer. It seems to come to me.
I changed my position on the love seat, trying to concentrate on my reading, and looked at my watch. It said six-thirty AM. In a half-hour, I had to face the world. A creaking sound came from my bedroom. The old building I lived in creaked and groaned from time to time. Sounds like that drives me nuts. My breath caught in my throat and my heart pounded inside my chest. My stomach churned. Maybe I’m coming down with something? I’d better call in sick? No, I can’t do that. Mr. Bullard is strict on attendance. I’ve got to go. Leaping to my feet, I ran to the bathroom. Fluffy dived off my lap and ran to the kitchen. I almost didn’t make it to the toilet before a gush of diarrhea shot out of me. My stomach settled and my bowels emptied. A foul odor rose from the toilet bowl. I fanned the air in front of my face, finished my business, and went back to the love seat.
“Ah that feels much better,” I said to myself and then started to read once more. My eyes found the door. In the book, some unnamed character was trying to rally the town’s people to help the Mojave Kid with the outlaws. I looked at the door again. My heart shifted into overdrive. Fluffy jumped back onto my lap and started to purr. My tea spilled burning my hand.
“I bet you think your master is some kind of weird duck,” I said stroking Fluffy’s back while I continued to read. A noise came from the hallway. A shiver went down my spine. What is it? Why am I so afraid? I was usually anxious every morning when it came close to the time for me to leave for work, but this was different. What is behind that door? What diabolical evil thing is going to befall me today? Footsteps echoed from the hallway. My heart leaped in my throat. “Get a grip, Merryweather. It’s one of your neighbors going to work.” My watch said six forty-five AM. A sharp pain shot through my stomach. It felt like someone was squeezing it in a vice. On my feet once more, I ran to the bathroom and barely made it in time. Another gush of diarrhea shot out of me. “Good Lord,” I moaned. “I am coming down with something.” When my stomach settled, I pulled up my pants. I sprayed some air fresher in the bathroom, and then went back to the kitchen. I opened the refrigerator and picked up a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. I opened the childproof cap and chugalugged the foul-tasting pink liquid.
“The breakfast of champions,” I said and then put the Pepto-Bismol away. After making a couple of sandwiches, I put them into a brown paper bag. I tossed in an orange, a banana, and a small container of yogurt. With the book in hand, I headed to the front door. At the front door, I paused next to the telephone mounted on the wall. Chills ran up my back.
I should call in? I could tell them I’m sick. After all, I did have diarrhea. If I call in, Bullard will be pissed. He’ll mark me down for absenteeism. My hand reached toward the phone. The telephone let out a shrill ring. I jumped back, letting out a startled gasp, and then picked up the receiver.
“Hello,” I said.
At first, I heard nothing but someone’s faint breathing. Then a gravelly voice, that was so faint that I could barely hear it said, “Finish the tale.”
I slammed down the receiver. “That was weird,” I said rubbing sweat from my brow as I headed for the door. My hands shook when I touched the doorknob. In the hallway, I stood for a few seconds. Bright light reflected off the white marble tile. It made me squint. “God, you can be so stupid sometimes, Merryweather,” I said.
My footfalls echoed down the hall as I headed to the elevator. At the elevator, I stood waiting for the doors to open. All feelings of nervousness and dread left me. Then I thought what if someone is in the elevator? My knees started to shake. The doors slid open. The elevator car stood empty. Maybe the elevator is going to malfunction?
“Come on Merryweather,” I said to myself. Inside the elevator, I turned to punch the round blue button for the lobby. The sound of boot heels clicking echoed in the hallway.
“Hold the elevator!” A female voice resonated down the corridor. I stuck my arm between the sliding doors. They slid back into the wall. A good-looking woman with long blonde hair and a shapely figure stepped in. She looked to be in her early twenties. I took in her long golden locks, her large round breasts, and her long legs. She had tiny hazel flakes sprinkled through her ocean blue eyes. I liked her dark blue satin blouse and tight-fitting jeans. She turned to press the button for the lobby. My eyes dropped to her shapely bottom. I imagined what she would look like naked for an instant. This might not be such a bad day after all? I thought.
“Hello, Brandon. How are you this morning?” the pretty woman asked. Cute little dimples formed in her cheeks when she smiled. She took my breath away. The smell of her perfume filled the elevator. A tingling sensation shot through my lower regions.
“I’m sorry. I’m at a loss here. You seem familiar and I’ve seen you around, but we’ve never spoken.” I said as she stepped closer and took my arm for a second. Her right breast brushed up against my left bicep. My face flushed and I fought to control my breathing. My heart pounded inside my chest and a chill went down my spine.
“I’ve been your neighbor for the last five years. You need to get out more. I’m Kathleen. We, went to Junior High together remember? Everyone called me Kat?” Memory flooded back. I put my arm around her. She looked up at me and smiled. For a moment, I fell into the deep dark well of her pretty blue eyes.
“Oh yeah, Kat. How have you been? What have you been up to since school?”
“I work at an ad agency. How about you?” she said.
I shrugged. My stomach dropped when the elevator car began its descent. “I’m an accountant.”
She smiled again. “You were always good with math. That doesn’t surprise me.”
We made small talk. For once, I didn’t feel nervous and there were no long awkward pauses. God, I can’t believe how at ease I feel with her. I’ve never felt that way around any woman except Amy. Visions of Kat and I making mad passionate love flashed through my brain. Then I thought about Amy. If she were to get a makeover, she would be as pretty as Kat. My mind wandered. Images of Kat and Amy together with me naked in my bedroom flashed through my head. Heat rose in my cheeks and something else rose in my britches.
“What?” Kat asked.
My face reddened and my ears felt hot. “Nothing. Just wool-gathering.” The elevator stopped, I dropped my arm to my side and we stood waiting for the doors to open.
“If you’re not busy come by my apartment. We could watch a movie or something. I’ll cook you dinner,” Kat said.
My bottom jaw dropped. How could this beautiful woman be, interested in me? I bet she feels sorry for me? “Yeah. I’d like that,” I said.
We strolled across the lobby to the exit. Kathleen walked so close to me that our shoulders touched. The smell of her perfume and the sound of her bubbly laughter made me forget all my earlier fear and anxiety. This has the makings for a hell of a good day, I thought. The doorman, an older gentleman in his late fifties with black hair stood by the exit. He wore his maroon uniform. He looked at us and his features softened into a smile.
“You folks have a nice day,” he said and then opened the door. The sound of the traffic in the street wafted on the wind. A mass of people filled the sidewalk.
“You too Alex,” Kathleen said. Realization hit me. In the past five years that I had lived in the building, I had never taken the time to learn the doorman’s name. A weird-looking character wearing a leather jacket stood leaning against the wall. He looked like a biker. He stroked his goatee and watched us emerge from the building. His eyes focused on me. Kathleen and I stepped out the door. A crack of thunder reverberated down the street. I caught a scent of burning ozone. I saw a blinding flash of blue light and felt myself shoot forward propelled by some unknown force. My eyes clenched shut, my heart jackhammered in my chest and my breathing accelerated. I opened my eyes.
New York City and Kathleen were gone. The smell of dust and horse manure filled the air. I stumbled across a rough wooden boardwalk and staggered into the middle of a rocky dirt street. Someone screamed, a dog barked and horses whinnied. I looked up. A big burly man with a long black beard sawed the reins back and forth on a horse-drawn wagon. He was trying to keep the massive animals under control. I’m dead, I thought, and then passed out in the middle of the street.
I woke up in a cloud of dust. It caked the inside of my lungs making it hard to breathe; I let out a violent cough. Gritty sand covered my entire body. The hot Mojave sun beat down upon me. Sweat formed up, on my brow. Someone grabbed me and dragged me back onto the boardwalk. Horses squealed. The man in the wagon box yelled. “Hell’s flames! I almost killed that son of a bitch!” My eyes fluttered open revealing an older gray-headed man looking down at me. He wore a homespun cotton shirt and blue denim jeans under a green canvas apron. His face looked like scared-up saddle leather.
“You scared me to death, Tale Spinner. I thought you were, done for,” the man said. He knelt over me.
Tale Spinner? I caught a trace of whiskey on his breath. Glancing around, I saw wagons pulled by horses. I saw horses tied to hitching rails, and buggies pulled by mules. A couple of donkeys stood hobbled on a side street. The smell of dirt, horse droppings, and cheap whiskey drifted in the wind. People on the boardwalk stopped and stared. My God. I’m in the twilight zone, I thought.
“Are you hurt?” the man asked. He wore a look of concern on his face.
“No. I scraped up my arm a bit,” I said. Beads of sweat dripped down my forehead. The man helped me to my feet. Turning around, I looked at the doorway behind me. The batwing doors of a saloon faced me. Maybe if I go through those doors, I’ll wind up back where I came from. “Where am I?” I asked taking in my surroundings.
“Son, you’re in the armpit of Southern California. Welcome to Greedy Gulch.” Greedy Gulch? Where have I heard that name before? I wondered.
“What year is this?” I asked.
The man standing next to me gave me a peculiar look. “Why it’s eighteen eighty-three.” The man driving the wagon got control of his team. He parked the wagon and stepped onto the boardwalk shaking his head.
“Young feller, you liked to give me heart failure. Where’d you come from?”
I shrugged. “New York City.”
“New York City?” Both of the men facing me said at once and laughed.
“This boy’s touched in the head,” the big burly wagon master said. “Chad. You’d best get him up to see the doc.”
By now, a crowd had gathered. I looked down. My clothes seemed to be deteriorating. A warm breeze hit my legs.
“Jack. I’d best get him over to my store before his clothes fall off. He does have the look of a city slicker though. His clothes, what’s left of them, seem a might queer,” the older man in the green apron said.
“What’s your name, young feller?” the big burly man asked.
“Brandon. Brandon Merryweather.”
He slapped me on the back. “Folks call me Jack Bidwell. I own the freighting business. This feller is Dunbar. Chad Dunbar. He owns the mercantile. Go with Chad and get some new duds, and don’t be stepping in front of freight wagons anymore. Mayhap next time you won’t be so lucky,” Bidwell said and then went back to his wagon.
Dunbar took my arm. “Come on. We’re drawin’ a crowd. My place is up the street. Let’s get you some decent clothes before you’re standing here with your dingus hanging out.”
My eyes dropped to my lower regions. Large holes had formed in my pants and shirt. My shoes were starting to dissolve before my eyes. Tiny pieces of shoe leather floated in the breeze. God. What the hell is happening to me? Maybe I fell asleep on my couch and this is all a dream? Dunbar held onto my arm and hurried me along. On the street, I heard the crack of a bullwhip and the sound of horses’ hooves clopping against the ground. A dust cloud formed in the air, above the street. I let out a cough. A stagecoach rumbled into town. The man in the wagon box wore a bandana over his nose to protect himself from the dust. Next to him sat a small wiry fellow holding a shotgun. The aroma of animal sweat, greasy cooking, and dust filled the air. Something was missing. Then it hit me: smog. There wasn’t a trace of diesel or automobile exhaust or any other trace of big-city pollution. The sky seemed larger somehow, bluer maybe. A pretty blonde-haired woman in a red dress climbed down from the stagecoach.
Various businesses lined the street. We passed a saddle shop, a gunsmith, a dry goods store, and a barbershop. Across the street, I saw a livery stable, a black smith’s shop, and a bathhouse. An old China man stood in the doorway of the bathhouse watching us pass by. The sound of the black smith’s hammer resonated out of the black smith’s shop. We waited to let a man on horseback pass and then crossed a side street that intersected with the main drag. The man tipped his hat. A black and white dog ran along next to us and barked.
“Get on out of here you mangy cur!” Dunbar yelled. The dog cocked its head, giving us a curious look, and then continued on its way. We crossed the street and stepped up onto the adjacent boardwalk. This place seemed familiar to me. Across the street set a hotel and a restaurant. Next to the hotel set a bank and a post office. Dunbar led me past another saloon and gambling hall. The smell of fresh-baked bread caused my mouth to water when we passed a bakery. Dunbar stopped next to a building with glass windows. I read the words: Dunbar’s Mercantile and Emporium across the glass in blood-red letters. “This is my place.” Dunbar pushed open a large wooden door. A bell hanging over the door dinged when we stepped inside.
The store held what I would have called antiques but the merchandise looked brand new. A fat woman with gray hair and a pretty smile stood behind a counter. She reminded me of Ante Bee from the old Andy Griffith show. She had an ample bosom that strained the fabric of her blue cotton dress. Glasses with large lenses and a leather thong attached to the earpieces hung from her neck. I breathed in her fresh motherly scent. Dunbar looked up at her and grinned.
“Martha, this feller needs a new outfit. Let’s set him up with some clothes.” Martha looked me over. Her glasses slipped down onto the bridge of her nose. A bead of sweat tracked down her face.
“His clothes look a little threadbare and strange too. Is he who I think he is?”
Dunbar shrugged. “I reckon so. You fix him up while we have a cup of coffee.” Dunbar led me across the rectangular storeroom. We stepped through a door next to the service counter on the far wall. The door opened to a back room. A small wooden table was set in the center of the room next to a potbellied stove. A pot of coffee was set on the stove. Boxes of merchandise set stacked against the walls. The room smelled of dust and wood smoke. “Have a seat. I’ll pour us a cup of coffee.”
I pulled out a rickety chair from the table and sat down. “I don’t drink coffee. I prefer tea” I said.
Dunbar laughed. “We’re fresh out.” He turned to the wood stove, poured coffee, and then turned around. Dunbar set a cup in front of me then sat down across from me holding his, own cup. Breathing in the rich aroma, I took a tentative sip. The hot liquid burned my mouth. The coffee was stronger than any espresso I’d ever had at Starbucks. If I drank this stuff regularly, I’d die from acid reflux, I thought. “Good Lord that stuff is strong,” I said glancing at the middle-aged shopkeeper.
Dunbar laughed. He took a cautious sip of his coffee. “Yep. Old Martha likes her coffee hot enough to thaw out an iceberg and strong enough to bend a horseshoe.”
“What did she mean when she said am I who she thinks I am?” I asked.
Dunbar gave me a vague look and then glanced away. “We don’t need to get into that just yet.” I picked up my coffee cup, blew across the surface of the hot liquid, and took another sip. The brew wasn’t so bad once it cooled a bit.
Thinking about my situation, I figured that I must be dreaming. I reached up and pinched my cheek. No. I’m not dreaming.
Dunbar’s eyes widened. “What’d you do that for?”
Icy fear settled into my stomach. “I thought I was dreaming,” I said drumming my fingers on the tabletop.
Dunbar laughed and then slapped his hands on his knees. “If you’re dreamin’ then I’m dreamin’ too.”
If I’m not dreaming, maybe I’m hallucinating. Maybe Dunbar and this place aren’t real? Before I could lose my nerve, I reached up and pinched Dunbar on the nose.
Dunbar let out a snort and pulled away jumping back in his chair. “What the hell did you do that for?”
“I thought you weren’t real, that I was hallucinating,” I said raising my hands in surrender.
A puzzled look crossed Dunbar’s face. “Halluca-what?”
“I thought you weren’t real, that you were a part of my imagination.”
Dunbar shook his head. “Whoever heard of such a dammed thing? I’m as real as the next old boy.” The door squeaked open. Martha waddled in with a stack of clothes in her hands. She looked down at me, giving me a red-faced smile, and looked away. I looked down at my body. My shoes were gone and the rest of my clothes had almost dissolved away. Crossing my arms over my lap, I felt a flush come over me.
“My goodness. I’ll say you need some new clothes. If you’d waited any longer you would be sitting there in your birthday suit,” Martha said. She laid the pile of clothes on the table. Reaching out, I touched the rough cotton fabric.
“Yep. He’s down to rags and tatters,” Dunbar said.
“Thank you. Mrs. Dunbar. I don’t have any money with me.”
Dunbar glanced at me. “I reckon we’ll start you up an account. You can settle up when you find work. What kind of work is it that you do?” The sound of a mouse scurrying around caught my ear. I leaned forward, placed my elbows on the table, and took another drink of coffee.
“I’m an accountant,” I said.
Dunbar scratched his chin. “Mayhap, they could use some help at the bank? Anyhow. You’ll find something here in town.” Dunbar reached over and patted my forearm.
“Come on now Chad. Let this youngster get dressed before he loses the rags that are covering him now. Where’d you say you’re from young feller?” Mrs. Dunbar asked.
“New York City,” I said and then looked up at her and smiled.
She shook her head. “They don’t make things as durable in them big cities as they do here in the West.” Mr. and Mrs. Dunbar stepped out of the storage room so I could change. Stripped out of the rags that remained on my body, I put on a pair of red Long Johns. They were the kind with the flap in the back and then pulled on a pair of denim jeans. After buttoning up my pants, I put on a dark blue button-up shirt and a pair of black cowboy boots. Strutting across the storage room, I looked in a mirror.
Look at me, I’m cowboy Bob, I thought studying the image in the mirror. Dressed, I ambled back through the door and into the main storeroom. Dunbar stood behind the counter.
“I reckon you’ll want a shootin’ iron. We’ll put that on your tab too,” Dunbar said.
“What? A gun? No thank you. I’m pro-gun control. Guns scare me,” I said.
Dunbar shook his head. “Pro what? Suit yourself, but you won’t last long in this town without one. At least pick out a hat. The sun out here will cook your brain if you don’t.” Crossing the room, I looked at the hats. After studying them for a few seconds, I settled on a black short-brimmed cowboy hat. It had a rattlesnake hatband. My fingers caressed the course rattlesnake band. “Fine choice,” Dunbar said and handed me a ledger.
“I’ll go see about that job at the bank. Thank you for your kindness, and tell your wife thank you too,” I said dipping the quill into the ink well.
“You can tell ‘er yourself when she comes back from the privy,” Dunbar said.
“No. I’d best be looking for that job over at the bank,” I said.
“That will be three dollars and fifty cents. Put your John Hancock down here.”
I signed his ledger. “I’ll pay you as soon as I can.”
Dunbar gave me a friendly smile. “No hurry. I’m sure you’ll find work somewhere,” he said.
We shook hands. I stepped out the door and headed down the boardwalk. I didn’t plan to look for anything but a way back to Manhattan. The doorway of the saloon behind where I landed in the street might be the one to take me home I thought. I hurried down the boardwalk. My heartbeat was loud in my chest, my breathing accelerated and my palms began to sweat. What if I am stuck in this place forever? I wondered. People walking on the boardwalk and the people in the streets stopped and stared. The black and white mutt that had barked at us earlier ran up. It let out a ferocious bark and started nipping at my heels. A chicken pecked at bugs in the middle of the cross street that I had traversed with Dunbar. It let out a squawk and took flight. A small black feather floated down to the ground.
Stopping in my tracks, I looked around taking in the shabby wooden buildings. They looked in a state of disrepair. Everyone I had met so far plus the people on the street seemed familiar. The entire town seemed familiar. Then it hit me like a ten-pound bag of shit. Greedy Gulch. This is the town from the Mojave Kid’s Last Ride. That scared the dog shit out of me. For a few moments, I stood trembling. I wake up in the morning and head to work. When I step out of the front door of my apartment building, I find myself in the middle of a Western novel. In the novel, a minor character hangs around the edges. He first shows up stumbling into the middle of Main Street in front of a freight wagon. The writer doesn’t do much with him. He dies in the end, I thought.
Running across the street, I stumbled up onto the boardwalk. My heart pounded inside my chest and my breath came out in short little gasps. A big-breasted red-headed woman in a hoop skirt stood next to me. A horse at one of the hitching rails whinnied in fear. I bumped into the woman by accident.
“Why you ruffian! How dare you?” the woman said and slapped my face.
“I’m sorry, miss,” I said, touching my cheek, and stumbled into a skinny man wearing a black suit. “Excuse me,” I said. Elbowing my way through the crowded boardwalk, I stopped in front of the saloon. It was set next to the place in the street where I made my debut. The words painted on the false front of the building over the awning looked old and faded. The Last Chance Saloon, the words proclaimed. The saloon, like the rest of the town, looked in a state of disrepair. What paint that remained was peeling and parts of the buildings looked as though they held some dry rot. Tiny flakes of red and green paint lay on the boardwalk and blew in the breeze. “Well, that’s appropriate,” I said to myself. My eyes dropped to the batwing doors. “This may be my last chance.” Glancing over the batwing doors and into the dark interior of the saloon, I couldn’t see much. The smell of tobacco smoke, foul whisky, urine, and puke, floated through the doorway. The sound of people talking and a woman laughing drifted from the interior of the saloon. An off-key piano player banged away at the keys. My stomach growled and my heart thumped the insides of my chest. What if this is real? What if the door to my apartment building somehow transported me into the world of the Mojave Kid?
My legs shook. Sweat cropped up on my forehead and in the palms of my hands. I couldn’t control my breathing. That was a dangerous world. It was a world filled with outlaws, packing guns and they weren’t afraid to use them. It was a world filled with violent men who would fight at the drop of a hat and, they would toss down the hat. It was a world where cattle stampeded and where men died from rattlesnake bites. It was a world where people died in the desert from lack of water or died in mine cave-ins. It was a world where something that could kill you waited around every corner. It was not a world I wished to live in.
Clinching my eyes shut, I pushed through the batwing doors. I stumbled into the Last Chance Saloon. I hoped that when I opened them that I would find myself in my Manhattan apartment, or on a New York City street. The sound of the piano player and the laughter from inside the saloon ceased. I opened my eyes. Patrons of the Last Chance Saloon stared with their mouths agape. Even the old white-headed piano player sat on his piano stool turned away from the piano staring at me in wonder. He had a gravy stain on the front of his shirt.
“Come have a drink, lad. You look like you saw a ghost,” a red-headed green-eyed Irishman standing behind the bar said. Stumbling across the barroom, I wondered when this nightmare would end. Conversations resumed. The card payers resumed their game. The piano player banged away at the keys. I sat down on a barstool and had a good look around the room.
The Last Chance Saloon seemed like your typical cowboy bar. The kind that you would see on any TV Western or read about in your typical Western novel. Sawdust and peanut shells covered the floor. A brass railing ran along the bottom of the long Mahogany bar for the patrons to rest their feet on. A large mirror hung on the wall behind the bar. A picture of Lilly Lang Tree, a famous actress from the 1800s, adorned the wall next to the street. It hung on the wall to the left of the batwing doors. On the right side of the batwing doors hung a painting of Buffalo Bill. Paintings of various gunfighters and outlaws adorned the walls of the saloon. There were paintings of Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday. Most of the paintings looked old and faded. Brass spittoons were set at each end of the bar.
“What ’ell you have me, lad?” Startled, I turned to face the bartender.
“Do you have Coke or Pepsi?” I asked.
The bartender gave me a strange look and then shook his head. “My name is Shawn McCoy. I’ve owned this place for several years now, and I’ve never heard of those drinks.”
I shrugged. “What do you have?”
McCoy wiped the bar down with a towel. “We have beer and whiskey.”
A sense of bravado passed through me. “What the hell. Give me a whisky.”
McCoy grinned. “Now there’s a lad after my own heart.” He set a shot glass on the bar. Picking up the shot glass, I lifted it to my nose. The dark liquor smelled potent. Several of the drinkers lining the bar stared. “Down the hatch,” McCoy said. My stomach churned and my hands shook. I would never have tried drinking whiskey at home.
What can it hurt? I downed the shot in one quick gulp. It seemed like I drank liquid fire. The whiskey burned, all the way down. Letting out a sputter, I coughed and then leaned over holding my stomach. McCoy reached over and slapped me on the back a couple of times.
“Easy lad. Don’t die on us,” McCoy said. The cowboys and miners lining the bar and sitting at the various tables laughed.
“Look at the tinhorn,” a sandy-headed cowboy sitting down at the bar said. He let out a mean-sounding laugh.
“Never you mind,” McCoy said. When I straightened up, he poured me another shot. “Have a hair of the dog.”
I raised my hands trying to wave him off. “I can’t pay for that. I don’t have any money,” I said.
McCoy smiled. “Don’t trouble yourself. I’ll start you a tab. You’re new in town. You’ll find work. I could use someone to clean up around this place.”
“Hey! tinhorn! Where are you from? I ain’t seen you around here,” the sandy-headed cowboy yelled. His voice boomed through the interior of the saloon. He looked as tough as nails. My knees shook and my heart quaked. Sweat formed up in the palms of my hands and on my forehead.
“N-New York City,” I stammered. Everyone laughed, except for Shawn McCoy.
“Not only a tinhorn but a city slicker all dressed up in fancy new clothes,” the cowboy said. He climbed to his feet and swaggered my way.
“Leave ‘em alone Barlow. This is our new Tale Spinner,” McCoy said.
“What do you mean by that? You’re the third person who’s said that to me so far,” I said. McCoy shrugged.
“Never mind. You’ll find out soon enough.” McCoy cleaned my shot glass with a towel and poured me another shot. Determined not to make a spectacle of myself, I downed the shot. It burned like the last one, but I managed not to let it show. My vision turned fuzzy for a few seconds.
“Hey tinhorn!” the cowboy yelled. A dark-haired saloon girl wearing a low-cut purple dress slid between the cowboy and me. I breathed in her fresh scent. My eyes dropped to the deep valley of cleavage between her breasts. Heat rose in my cheeks. The saloon girl’s dress had a split in it, which showed off a lot of, legs. She played with her long curly black hair twirling it around her fingers.
“Hey, handsome. Buy a girl a drink?” she said and then smiled. I looked at the bartender. McCoy grinned and poured her a shot. She downed it in one gulp. “What’s your name, handsome?” She ran her hand down my back. Chills shot through me.
“M-Merryweather. Brandon Merryweather,” I said.
“Come here, little sister. You need a real man, not this tinhorn,” the cowboy said. He grabbed the saloon girl around the waist and pulled her against his body. The jerking motion caused the front of the saloon girl’s dress to fall. Her breasts jutted forward and fall free. The cowboy’s hands found the saloon girl’s bosom.
“Craig Barlow! Get your filthy paws off me! If you want to play, you have to pay first!” the saloon girl yelled. The cowboy laughed. McCoy reached under the bar for something. I jumped to my feet. My knees quit shaking and my hands balled into fists.
“Leave her alone!” I yelled.
The cowboy laughed. “What are you gonna do, tinhorn?”
I raised my fists in front of my face. Who was I kidding? I’d never been in a fight. Usually, I got beat up and this was no exception.
“The tinhorn wants to fight?” the cowboy said. He shoved the saloon girl away and then lunged forward. He hit me with a hard right-hand fist, which connected with my left eye. Pain shot through my skull, I saw stars, and then the lights went out.
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