A Western saloon... - Editor
by Coy Hall
Roth Cadman rode through the drizzling midnight rain towards the livery stable of Trinity Hill. Mud jumped from the street, up his leg and around his face. Rain fell in stinging drops. With the exception of a few dim lights shining from the saloon, the town looked deserted along Main Street. Cadman moved into the dry stable and dismounted. The livery, like the town around it, seemed deserted.
Maybe it’s the late hour, he thought to himself, pulling his things together and unsaddling the horse. But the explanation wasn’t convincing. Boom towns like Trinity weren’t in the habit of going to bed just after sundown. Cadman put the horse away and fed it. Beating the rain from his hat, he prepared to make a dash through the downpour towards the saloon. He needed a drink.
The sky rumbled with thunder. Wind moved the rain in sideway sheets across the dark, muddy vista.
Cadman stooped his shoulders and ran for it. The mud was three inches deep in places, and puddles, like small ponds, dotted the street. A plank sidewalk led up to the porch of the saloon. Cadman stood breathlessly beneath the awning, glancing inward over the batwing doors. People were inside, a lot of them, sitting quietly around the dim glow of candles.
Cadman did what he could before entering, smacking his hat against the rail and wiping the water and mud from his unshaven face. He was used to being alone, and used to being stuck out in the weather, but that didn’t mean it didn’t make him miserable. Nights like this made him feel like a stray dog.
Not wanting trouble or attention, Cadman took the oddity in stride. His mind, though, was at work behind steady eyes as he made his through the labyrinth of people to the crowded bar. When he was a kid, his mother dragged him to church on Sundays. Anytime somebody in the congregation died, the church held a prolonged moment of silence. He remembered those mornings vividly, and how they chilled him to the core then. This silent group of folks at Trinity Hill brought him back to those days, stirring a long-dormant uneasiness.
He nudged his way to the bar without a fight, without words. To his chagrin, however, there was no one tending it. He wasn’t a man to snap easily, but he needed that drink like a sick man needs medicine.
The man standing beside him acknowledged his presence first. “Stranger,” the man tipped his hat in greeting. He was an old gentleman of the professional class. He wore a heavy gray mustache that nearly hid his mouth and had steely eyes that revealed years of learning. His slick black suit spoke of money.
“Howdy,” Cadman offered. “You know how I can get a drink?”
A thin smile crossed the old man’s face; his mustache twitched. “Tonight,” he said, “you’re free to take what you wish. Though folks’ll frown on a drink, I hear,” he paused. “There’s no need of money where we’re going.
“Where’d that be?” Cadman asked, curious to hell but trying not to play it up.
“Just hop on over and take a bottle,” the man goaded.
“You tryin’ to get me shot to pieces?” Cadman said defensively. “What’s goin’ on in here anyhow?”
Another man approached, shouldering through the crowd. He extended his hand to Cadman. He was a young man, clean-cut, with a round, reddish face. He smiled. “We didn’t think the outsiders were going to make it,” he said. “But we’re certainly glad to have you here with us tonight. My name is Joseph, sir. And I am very pleased to meet you.” Joseph exuded congeniality, too much in fact. His was an artificial personality, constructed with an eye to a strict agenda.
Cadman turned, leaning his back against the bar. “Roth Cadman,” he said, shaking the young man’s hand. There was no need to turn the thought over in his mind; Cadman didn’t like the fellah for an instant.
At the sound of Cadman’s name, the old man at his side grinned widely. “Cadman?” he asked. “Well a man would be mighty amiss if he hadn’t heard of you. Joe, you know who this fellah is?”
Joseph shrugged blankly. “A child of the lord.”
“Why, he’s a bounty hunter. Been in the paper several times. Three weeks ago when he nabbed Charlie Volquez just north of the border. Roth Cadman. Name’s Mortimer J. Alexander,” the old man said loudly. “I’m impressed to hell with what you do, young man.”
Cadman thought: This is better than the usual reaction I get. Hostility, especially in boom towns, was typical. Cadman nodded his thanks to Alexander.
Joseph didn’t share the old man’s enthusiasm; in fact, he seemed disappointed. The friendly demeanor faded. “A man-hunter?” he asked snidely. “Trinity Hill’s blessed with your presence.”
Cadman let the remark slide, but he knew he wouldn’t forget it. His ego was too large for the latter. If I catch roly-poly Joseph alone, he thought, he’ll get the worst pistol-whipping of his life. He winked his thoughts at the young man.
Joseph turned without a further word and walked back toward the front of the room.
“The boy’s got the idea that he’s important,” Alexander said, turning his back to the counter in imitation of Cadman. “It’s a hard disease to get rid of.”
“You might say that. How long you been in Trinity?” Cadman asked.
“Nine months about. I put up the bank across the street. Does well enough with all the money comin’ in from the oil. You visited before?”
“Yeah,” Cadman said shortly. “I don’t mean to get pushy, but you’re gonna tell me what’s goin’ on around here. Most of these folks haven’t breathed a word since I came in.”
Alexander nodded. “It’s not an easy thing,” he said, “preparing yourself to die. I’m an old man, but that still doesn’t make it simple. Folks, as you’d expect, are taking it hard. That’s why they’re quiet.”
Cadman’s understanding didn’t budge. “Everybody in here’s gonna die?”
“And you,” Alexander said, then twisted his face in confusion. “You really didn’t know?”
People in the immediate vicinity turned to listen, curious.
Cadman shook his head. “I was just passing through.”
“Then the Word hasn’t reached as far as we’d hoped,” Alexander sighed. “That explains why you’re the only stranger to come.”
The thought settled in Cadman’s mind that he stood in the equivalent of an asylum, surrounded by a cadre of religious fanatics. He didn’t like the prospect of it. And the whole town, he guessed, was like that: sitting here in the dark, waiting to die, waiting for the world to come to an end. I’m getting a drink and moving on, he promised himself. To hell with Trinity Hill; I’ll sleep in the rain if I have to. With that in mind, Cadman eased his backside onto the bar top and slid his legs to the other side. He hopped down with a thud.
A young man, similar in appearance and attitude to Joseph, piped up from close by. “You can’t drink,” he chided. “Sir, there’s no drinking in here tonight.”
Cadman, ignoring the young man, unhooked his duster, allowing it to fall open. It revealed two pistols holstered at his side. Their pearl handles shone even in the dim candlelight. “Well I’m gonna,” he said.
People turned at the sudden ruckus.
“You can’t drink liquor in here,” a woman shouted out.
Cadman, flushed with anger, pulled a pistol from his side. “I’m taking a drink,” he said to whoever wanted to listen, and there were a few. “Any man or woman tries to stop me and I’ll shoot them dead.” He smiled caustically. Removing a full bottle of Kentucky bourbon from the shelf, he looked around the room, watching, wondering if anybody would call his bluff. They lost interest quickly, though. There was no fight in them beyond the battle in their own minds. They let Cadman break the rules without any further objections. Not even Joseph, who Cadman eyed in the far corner, protested.
Cadman downed a mouthful, then offered the bottle across the bar to Alexander. The old man looked tempted, but torn. “I can’t,” he said mournfully.
I don’t remember Trinity being hit so hard by the temperance drive, Cadman thought to himself. It doesn’t seem natural. A man used to fight not to buy vice around here. Cadman watched the weary crowd, then downed another quick drink.
Joseph Henriksen had his own way of dealing with unruly strangers: he told the higher-ups in hope that the responsibility would pass him by. He was a man of God, after all. And violence, he felt, was no one’s friend.
Joseph watched Roth Cadman from across the room -- watched him drink whisky insolently. The man is boastful and arrogant, he thought to himself, and fumed inside. But he’s dangerous, too. Joseph got a sense of the latter from the look in Cadman’s eyes. They had an animalistic nature, wary and unmoving. The look was enough to unsettle Joseph and push him away from a confrontation. He brooded in silence.
Moving amongst the people, comforting their frightened souls, had given his own mind little relief. He felt tense and, though he was reluctant to admit it, afraid. Though it didn’t create these feelings, Cadman’s presence accentuated them. Joseph moved to the front of the dark saloon and out the doors. The rank night air, for once in his life, was a relief.
Paul Goodman -- Paul of the Holy Trinity -- is waiting across the street, he thought to himself. He’s waiting in the sheriff’s office to come amongst us. I should be with the flock until his arrival, Joseph reprimanded himself. But what he should do and what he had to do were irreconcilable. His own mind couldn’t be at rest until he had a final talk with Paul, the flesh of his savior. Paul held the key to his own peace. How could he help the flock otherwise?
Joseph sunk his steps into the muddy street. The rain, it seemed, had passed for the night. The air felt cold and bitter.
The sheriff’s door was unlocked. Joseph entered, finding the meditating form of Paul sitting quietly at the desk. He was a slim, tall man with thin, sharp features. Paul looked up in the darkness. “What is it, my son?” he asked in an aloof, distant voice.
Joseph wrung his hands, nervously. “My lord,” he began with respect, “there is fear in my heart.”
Paul Goodman struck a match and lit a candle atop the desk. He moved his seat closer to the glow. “My son,” he said with a smile that seemed to hold a thousand years of forgiveness, “you would be lying to yourself and to others if you pretended to be without fear. Your lord respects fear and especially those who face it.” Again he smiled.
Joseph’s heart raced with what he guessed to be infinite love. Tears of mixed emotion escaped his eyes.
Paul raised a single hand. “I know what you want to say. And you know I feel the same for you and the entire flock of Trinity Hill. I marvel at the appropriate name of this wonderful place.”
“There is another thing,” Joseph said; his throat tightened. “A stranger arrived.”
“A blessing,” Paul smiled.
“No, my lord. This is a man of evil. I feel it in him. He is a killer.”
Paul cast a stern look. “Are you so intuitive to turn away those who would go my way?”
“No, my lord,” Joseph said shamefully.
“It is never too late to turn down the path I offer. You know this, Joseph. Do not deny the love in your heart to any man. He will pass with us tonight. He will die as if he’d been a fundamental member of our flock since the beginning.”
“Yes, my lord,” Joseph said, swallowing nervously.
“Is that all that troubles you, my son?”
“That is all.”
“Then lead, my faithful son. Steer those souls in that once house of vice. I will come among you in a matter of moments. Our time approaches.” Paul snuffed out the candle and the room once again fell to black.
Joseph, his hands clasped at his waist, left the sheriff’s office and headed back to the saloon. His heart still felt heavy, even more so than before.
Maybe it was the drink in his system, but Roth Cadman felt a sudden curiosity about the saloon’s proceedings. After downing a couple drinks, he had prepared to head out. The rain, as far as he could tell, had passed on. His horse had no doubt eaten its fill at the livery. But his thoughts of leaving had turned away when Joseph burst through the batwing doors, announcing that the arrival of Paul of the Holy Trinity was forthcoming. A matter of moments, he’d said. A murmur rose amongst the crowd which still hadn’t died away. It was a nervous chattering, a hundred voices going at once. Cadman became a spectator.
“You prepared to die?” Cadman said, still behind the bar, to the brooding Alexander.
“I thought so,” the old man said. His attitude had deteriorated steadily since Cadman’s arrival. “I hope Paul can get me going once more. Faith’s a brittle thing, you know that?”
“Not if it’s real,” Cadman said, waxing philosophic.
Alexander raised his thick eyebrows and sighed. “True,” he admitted.
“So when did this Paul fellah come into town?”
“Seven months ago to the day. Came in one night, a rainy one like this, soaked to the bone. He did some preachin’ around town, always out on the street with the people. His flock he called it.”
“And now he’s takin’ you home,” Cadman said.
Alexander nodded slowly.
Paul of the Holy Trinity didn’t keep his audience waiting. His arrival, however, was more low-key than Cadman had expected. What could’ve been accompanied by extravagant pomp and circumstance occurred with the pathos of a funeral procession. Even Cadman felt moved by the melancholy entrance.
“That’s the savior,” Alexander whispered unnecessarily, his face turning ashen.
Cadman watched the scene unfold.
Paul had the overhanging oil lamps relit, filling the saloon with light. The candles burned low. Paul took a noble stance on an elevated platform which held a player piano. He stood in front of the instrument, distinguished, raising his hands to quiet the crowd. Silence swept across the room with palpable force.
All the while, Cadman eyed the man named Paul intensely. There was something about him -- something he vividly recognized. Cadman swiftly moved over the bar and into the crowd for a closer look. Paul noticed Cadman’s approach, and his magnetic gaze fell over him. There was a reserved stillness in the man’s face. Cadman racked his mind, trying to remember.
“My children,” Paul began in a loud, velvety voice that resonated off the saloon walls. “The night of our departure has finally come.” He smiled.
Finally it clicked in Cadman’s mind, and a quaking chill traveled up his spine. Fresno. Two years ago. He’d tracked a highway robber from Fresno to Trinity Hill, killing the man when he wouldn’t surrender. He’d watched the man die -- seen his grave on the hill behind town. Watching Paul of the Holy Trinity spout his rhetoric, there was no doubt in his mind. Paul was the very man he’d killed that night -- the man he’d seen buried. The savior of these fanatics was a dead highway robber.
Cadman quickly turned towards the bar, his eyes searching out Alexander. Fortunately, the old man hadn’t moved from his perch. Leaning in, Cadman spoke calmly and quietly. “What if I told you I knew that man?”
“Paul Goodman?” Alexander asked.
Cadman nodded. He looked over his shoulder suspiciously.
Cadman stamped the fear from his voice, but his mind was rampant with it. “Because I killed him. I saw him buried on the hill behind this saloon, right here in Trinity.”
“Well,” Alexander said in disbelief, “I don’t doubt he looks like him, Roth. Maybe you oughtta take another drink, huh? We’re all worked up.”
Cadman couldn’t find fault with the old man’s reluctance to believe what he said. His disbelief was natural. I’d react the same, he thought. “Why don’t you take a trip with me?” Cadman asked. An idea popped into his mind: the grave should still be in the cemetery. Alexander will see then, and I’ll see for sure myself. It wasn’t an easy thing to believe. “Come out to the graveyard.”
Alexander looked around with nervous eyes. His faith already on unsteady ground, it didn’t take much convincing to get him away from the saloon. “They won’t let us go,” he said; but he was ready to run.
“Yeah,” Cadman admitted. He thought for a moment. “There’s a trap door behind the bar I’ll bet,” he said. “They gotta keep the liquor somewhere.”
“The front door’s the only other chance.” Alexander’s eyes darted through the crowd.
Paul, fired up now, worked the crowd into a furor. They called back his shouts, and the place began to roar.
Cadman hopped the bar like before, but nobody seemed to notice. In the better light he could make out the markings on the floor. It didn’t take him long to discover the outlines of a square door. Thankfully, there’d been no effort on the bar owner’s part to hide the passageway. Cadman nodded his discovery to Alexander, whose mustache twitched in nervous relief.
Lifting the door, Cadman peered into the dark storage space below. He took a candle from the bar and went down. The space was black as pitch and no taller than five feet; barrels littered the way. The candlelight helped him find his footing, but little else. Hunched over, Cadman felt his way to the cold wall.
The shouting voices resonated through the floorboards, nearly causing them to buzz.
Cadman had known fear many times in his line of work. It was an everyday reality. But, seeing Paul standing on that platform had shaken him harder than any grazing bullet. It was a different type of fear -- distant, but more poignant. Regardless, his mind remained steady from years of practice.
When the dim candlelight fell over the form of a cellar door, resting closed at an angle above him, Cadman nearly thanked God for the blessing. He rushed carelessly back to the trap door and pulled himself up onto the barroom floor. He stood, motioning to the waiting Alexander to follow. The old man, smartly, had already made his way across the top of the bar. “He’s getting ready to tell them how it’s going to happen,” Alexander said.
Together, they hopped down into the cellar and moved through the cramped darkness to the waiting doors. Cadman pushed them open, emerging into the night air first. Rain fell in a light drizzle. Just as he looked up, however, his excitement turned sour.
A gun clicked.
Joseph pointed a revolver at Cadman’s head. “Come on out Mortimer,” Joseph said. “Both of you stand up.”
Thunder shattered the sky.
Angrily, Cadman stood in the muddy lot behind the saloon. The cemetery hill loomed in front of them. Alexander was at his side, brushing the mud from his suit. He didn’t speak.
Cadman went over the situation in his mind. He’d sized up Joseph in the saloon, and had made the conclusion that the boy was a lightweight in everything except talk. He certainly wasn’t a fighter. But it didn’t take a killer to kill; and the way Joseph had the revolver trained on Cadman’s face meant that it wouldn’t take much skill either. But the boy didn’t want to kill; he wanted Cadman and Alexander to rejoin the saloon fanatics in their ritual.
“How’d you know?” Cadman asked.
“I’ve been watchin’ you all night,” Joseph said proudly. “And this’s the only way out. It wasn’t much of a stretch. Now drop your guns, Cadman. Both of them.”
“Aren’t you missin’ out on what the savior’s saying?” Alexander asked sarcastically.
“Old man,” Joseph said threateningly, “the lord’ll leave you behind with an attitude like that.” He shifted his gaze. “Drop the guns, Cadman!”
Cadman played a trick he’d been executing for the last decade. He pulled both pistols at the same time, holding them out for Joseph to take with his one free hand.
“I said drop them,” the young man said. He extended the revolver.
Cadman called his bluff. With lightning quickness he tossed one of the pistols towards Joseph, gripped the other, and with a swift blow, brought the butt down on Joseph’s gun hand. The young man let out a cry as his gun dropped to the mud.
Cadman was on him in a second, swiping the front of Joseph’s skull with the handle of his pistol. It was enough to stagger him. Cadman reached down, grabbing the two pistols from the mud. He holstered his own, tossing the other to Alexander. “Keep that on him,” he said. “We’re goin’ to the cemetery.”
Alexander nodded rapidly. He pointed the gun at Joseph. For good measure, Cadman uppercut Joseph in the gut, knocking the wind out of him. Joseph shouted out, doubling over in pain.
They labored up the hill in the rain, gaining the mud trail about halfway up. The cemetery was crude, but no worse than any other boom town. Wooden crosses shone greyly as a lightning bolt split the sky.
“Why’re you takin’ me here?” Joseph asked. “You gonna kill me?”
“No.” Cadman said. “That man inside: Paul. I know him.”
“How does a man like you know him?” Joseph asked snidely.
“’Cause I killed the bastard.”
“Right here in Trinity,” Alexander put in, his gun still aimed steady.
“That’s insane,” Joseph said. “Paul Goodman is a man of God.”
“He was a highway robber,” Cadman said. “I tracked him here two years back.” The three walked through the maze of graves to the back corner. “This is it,” Cadman said, kneeling at a dilapidated cross. He remembered the burial vividly; he had a good memory when it came to his business.
“The grave of a man you murdered,” Joseph said, continually looking over his shoulder at the peaking roof of the saloon. “That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Notice anything strange about it?” Cadman asked. The sight, even though he’d half expected it, made him shudder. The dirt sank inward almost a foot as though something had been removed from it. “I’ll bet if you dug this up there’d been nothin’ in it.”
Joseph was silent, but his look was ambiguous. He conceded nothing.
Again, lightning lit the sky.
“They’re all like that, Roth,” Alexander spoke up. “The three or four around here are at least. All of ‘em sunk down.”
“When Paul showed up in Trinity,” Cadman asked, playing an absurd hunch, “did it coincide with anything?”
“We’d sunk a new oil well about that time,” Alexander said.
“Maybe you released more than oil,” Cadman said vaguely. “Sounds ridiculous,” he said. “But so is everything else going on in Trinity.”
“You’re insane,” Joseph said, looking over his shoulder impatiently. “You insinuating that demons and the like came out of that well and possessed corpses?” he laughed. “Lord, please forgive this man.”
From the bottom of the hill, a series of indistinct shouts rose suddenly from the saloon and cut through the night. They were shouts of pain and agony, not of praise and worship.
The sound stirred Joseph to life. Disregarding Alexander’s gun, he ran towards the noise. Quickly, he disappeared over the crest of the hill.
The screaming continued, unabated. A hundred shouts of terror and agony rang through the din of the storm, climbed the cemetery hill and assailed Cadman and Alexander. The two men stood transfixed, listening, trying to see through the darkness. Neither moved for a moment.
The chorus ceased slowly, one voice at a time. The whole scene lasted minutes.
Alexander looked at Cadman. “You don’t …” he stopped, thinking.
Cadman felt the urge to turn and run; to get as far away from Trinity Hill as his legs could afford him. But his urge died with the grisly shouting.
“What about the boy?” Alexander asked. “Joseph.”
Cadman shrugged. Whatever happened, he did it to himself, he thought.
“Let’s head back down,” Alexander continued. “I wanna have a look.”
Cadman instinctively followed Alexander through the graveyard. His imagination ran wild as he made out the roof and upper façade of the saloon. If something had come out of the well … He watched the graves as they passed. All of them were the same -- all drooping, missing something. He wondered if many of the townsfolk were like Paul Goodman. But that wasn’t likely. There’d be too much of a chance of getting recognized. If I’d only been here a day earlier, Cadman thought. I’d have recognized Paul before it was too late -- recognized him for what he really was.
The bleak silhouette of the saloon sat calm and quiet. Cadman and Alexander moved cautiously around to the front entrance. They stopped, looking over the doors. Not surprisingly, all of the lights had been snuffed out except for a few candles here and there. Alexander started to push through the doors but Cadman held him back.
Something on the ground, just within the entrance, caught his eye. He bent to pick it up, then recoiled in horror, throwing it with force back to the ground.
“What was it?” Alexander asked excitedly.
Cadman rushed off the porch without answering, towards the livery. Alexander was at his heels, though. “What?” he asked again.
Cadman turned. “A finger,” he said with difficulty. “A god-damn bloody finger with the nail broken back. Like it’d been clinging to the wood.”
Alexander looked past him into the night, a look of illness on his aged face. “Every grave up there looked that way” he said, “like Paul Goodman’s. There could be hundreds out there like him.”
Cadman searched for words but couldn’t find them. The same thought had been going through his mind. Joseph, he guessed, must’ve made it inside the saloon -- probably the last to go. Trinity Hill was a battleground, he thought to himself. The saloon a mausoleum. And Alexander and I listened to a massacre. “The first,” his stomach wrenched, “of many.”
Alexander looked at him like he understood the quiet words, like they had come from his own mind. “There’ll be more like this,” he said to himself. To Cadman: “When we sunk that well, seven of the men died in an accident. They were blown to pieces,” he paused. “That’s what we thought anyhow.”
Cadman nodded, rain dripping from his hat. All we can do is run, he thought.