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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Vichinsky

A Western

The sun over the desert had set and the wind made it cold. Small wisps of sand hit the sides of the building making it sound like a snake. It whispered through the night into the windows of the small town.

Inside Elena slept in a dark room. Small pictures sat on a night stand of one of her mother and her and a small memento - a gold pocket watch sat there passing time, peaceful moments that added as she slept.

She heard footsteps that were familiar and her eyes cracked.

Time to leave this shit-hole.

She looked up at the tall figure, her father, the light from the door blasted his head from behind so he appeared as a shadow.

“Is someone after us, papa?”

I’ll keep you safe, I always do. Are you ready to go?

She smiled at this for some reason. I can be, daddy.

Atta girl. He walked away, his boots knocking against the dusty stairs.

Papa, or what he was known to the public, Jack Donovan, only grabbed what was considered essential - which wasn’t much. A pistol, his black hat, a coat, and small canned items that he kept in case of starvation, and his pocket watch he checked readily to make sure that nothing skipped a beat. Jack had already packed these things and had stood at the main door with a member of his crew watching Elena scramble for the items that would follow her to her next chapter.

Despite Jack feeling impatient by Elena’s slow choices, Elena had learned the family art - leaving things behind she just wasn’t as decisive. Would she choose her blanket? Her only doll? Her necklace from her mother? She put the items on her bed and struggled with this for a moment before hearing the hard click of boots tap slowly behind her.

Elena. A pause, a whisper from behind him. She made it out, mostly because she had heard it before. We have to go, now.

She grabbed the necklace and walked slowly past the two men’s legs. Out into the night’s darkness and the rare rain, where the wagon lurched off, the house on fire behind them.

~ 15 Years Later ~


Elena walked into the dark bar. Her hat over her eyes, and her scarf covering her mouth. Her eyes and cheeks were rosy from the snow. When the door opened the wind howled and left a drift into the bar in which everyone turned from their drinks and looked. She stood at the doorway of the bar for a second, all men looked back down at their drinks as the door slammed shut.

I’m looking for Jack, she yelled angrily across the bar.

The bartender, who was cleaning a glass, turned his back to her putting a glass on the shelf and pointed to the left. A man, a shadow of a man, dressed in his black winter coat, a black hat to the right of him at the booth was faced down next to a spilled drink.

She walked over, keeping her head down, feeling her boots stick to the wet wood - her nose scrunched in disgust.

Get up. She whispered.

Nothing in response.

Get up. She now said in a more snarled whisper, one through her teeth.

Nothing.

She kicked the table.

His eyes winked open and his head turned toward her.

Sweetpea.

He looked older now. Pale, wrinkles from leathered skin, and all those years in the sun, were emphasized around his eyebrows. His dull skin emphasized a yellow smile. He had passed his prime, he knew this.

Don’t.

He lifted his head and wiped his mouth.

I was just about to come looking for -

Don’t, we have to go. They’re looking for you.

No they’re not. He rubbed his eyes.

Yes. They fucking are.

They never know where I’m at, they think they do.

Her eyes widened and her leg tensed with impatience.

By the way, he says as he puts his hat back on, that’s no way to wake your father.

She rolled her eyes - and waited as he gathered his things and his conscious.

From an outside voice: You’re looking rather pretty tonight.

She didn’t turn and didn't acknowledge waiting for her father’s urgency to kick in - it never came. Instead, Jack felt an opportunity.

He smiled from his table. That’s my daughter, pretty ain’t she.

She sure is.

What are you doing? She whispered to him. Her eyebrows narrowed.

Jack, still smiling, stood up, rubbing shoulders past her and shaking his hands with the man, you like Three-card monte?

Sure do.

Sweetpea, why don’t you go get us a drink. You play for money?

He was about to respond before she grabbed Jack’s arm again - What are you doing?

Relax, I got this. Now, louder, go get us some drinks.

She stared through him, the man across from her stared at her with a smirk - you heard the man. She walked slowly past them both through the clouds of rolled cigarettes and cold men that didn’t acknowledge what was happening at the card table.

Two whiskies, please.

The bartender, keeping eyes down, poured the cheap stuff, keep it going, he nodded.

Elena handed the drinks to both men and took a seat.

So, Fella, what’s your name? Jack shuffled the cards as he said this.

Nelson, he kept his eyes on Elena, what’s yours?

No response from Elena. Her arms crossed and she looked away.

Elena, Jack said, she’s twenty.

Jack knew what Nelson was after.

Really? He shot his glass and grabbed her arm to pull her up. She pulled it away.

Jack smiled, he freshened the deck, Hotshot, why don’t you come use your hands for something good and put some money on the table. The man kept his eyes on her, 100 dollars. Jack smiled. Deal.

The first game, Jack played strategically bad. Round after damned round, Jack played better - taking loose money from Nelson’s pockets. Each round Nelson would come and rub a little closer to Elena. A few times, he would drunkenly make Elena dance, a slow drunk dance with him as Jack drank, counted his money and puffed at the cigar waiting for his next round. He laughed as Nelson touched. Elena held more and more weight up.

Would you excuse me for a second, um, Nelson?

Jack said, Get another drink, Nelson.

Elena walked up to Jack, what are you doing? You won enough, let’s get out of here.

Jack stopped counting for a second, he grabbed Elena’s arm and brought his mouth real close to her ear. Close those legs real tight, Sweets.

She sneered at him.

Nelson was bringing back drinks, Alright, enough of a break, one more round.

They played and when the round was won, Nelson threw the remaining money and pocket lint he had on the table. Jack smiled at the madness.

Nelson, grabbed Elena’s arm. Let's go upstairs, I’d love to take some of my stress out. He smiled, his eyes seemed to be dripping from his head. Elena looked to Jack for the call to finally leave.

Say, Nelson, when you take my daughter upstairs, grab a little bit more of what you have left, and play for all or nothing. Take a second to clear the mind. He sipped. It’s always done me good, he smiled and winked at Elena.

Elena looked wide-eyed back and turned with a smile back to Nelson, suddenly charmed. Let’s go, cowboy. Her eyes drifted low, like someone in love, and her white smile curved into a kiss up to his cheek. She tasted sweat. She let her hands drift down to his hands and pulled him towards the stairs, then letting him lead her. She spun her head, before going upstairs back at Jack - counting his money - he looked up over it, and nodded.

~ Some Years Before ~


When they were kids Elena and Ralph would dare each other. It was harmless, really, kid stuff. It was outside the working hours of Jack and his crew. Their long hours of running, gambling, and killing jaded them and this seemed to be where they could continue to be kids.

I dare you to poke that cactus.

I dare you to ride the horse without a saddle.

I dare you to climb that tree.

I dare you to drink that bottle.

Whether the dare was complete or they spent the night arguing over who was the bigger baby they’d smile at the sun going down. From time to time, in their journeys with Jack they’d find themselves on the corner of some washed up mining town - like the one they’d picked up Ralph. There were saloons - men coming and going, women hanging out outside of them. When they passed them Ralph would look down at the ground and the game of Dare would be over.

Fucking whores, Jack would say. He’d look out of the corner of his eye and smirk at the boy looking down.

You’re lucky we saved you from that life there, boyo.

Daddy. stop.

He’d shake his head.

I can’t say anything in my own family now?

There was a moment of silence as the both looked down.

Well. He said and steered to the side of the sanded path. If you don’t like it, you both can get out.

Elena and Ralph looked at each other. Jack smiled.

Well, get out. Jack said calmly. The kids were in disbelief.

He turned his head toward the front of the carriage now and pointed.

Ralph got up and Elena stayed sitting. I’m sorry, she pleaded.

Ralph said from outside, El. She looked down and got up.

Eventually, Jack’s wagon left dust on their face. Elena had tears in her eyes and Ralph looked down, unsure in these situations, what to do next. In the distance he saw a bridge. He smiled.

I dare you to -

Ralph -

I dare you to race me to that bridge and back.

It’s almost dark.

I dare you.

She wiped a tear and pushed herself off the ground.

Alright, on your marks, get set, go.

~~~

Whispers washed each other out so no one could hear the others. A man sat at the other end of the bar. His hair pulled back, but two hairs pulled down into his face. He nursed a drink and stared through the top of his eyebrows.

That’s him.

He watched Jack scramble the cards, using his old trick to cheat. The old man could no longer do big crimes so he sat, desperately, acting on a part of him that had passed. The bartender came up, anything else for you?

I’m good.

The man pushed the glass toward the end of the bar and threw down money. He put his jacket on slowly and fixed his tan hat to the top of his head. About this time is when he saw Elena get taken upstairs and Jack laughed to himself counting his money.

From Jack’s point of view, if you remember, he was not interested in leaving whether this was the alcohol or the stubbornness that had hurt him in the ladder years of his career, no one would know, and frankly no one would care. If only he wasn’t so arrogant.

The last of this arrogance he would see is the apparatus of man placing a palm on his shoulder, the arrogance of his own voice pinching “what”, and the face of someone he used to know.

Ralph?

The man smiled and raised the pistol.

And then a shot, that must have felt like it was shot with ten years of pressure. He saw in slow motion, the bullet break his skull, through his brain, and out the back of his hat, sticking itself into the wooden floor. He sat flaccid, head back, eyes open peering up at the ceiling. Blood had sprayed on Ralph’s face and he felt a smile and a tear drop from his eye. He grabbed the money - the bills left in Jack’s hand and the few that fell on the ground and handed it to the bartender.

For the mess he said with a smile at the bartender.

He walked slowly toward the stairs, hands in his coat pockets, his hat over his eyes. Eyes followed him. He looked back at the audience, at the dripping blood from Jack and tipped a hat before walking upstairs.

In the room Nelson pushed Elena on the bed and turned around to take a swig.

I needed this. He took his shot. And took off his pants exposing the hairy bottom of his

gut. Would you like some? He turned around with a glass half full and dropped the glass at the sight of a gun in his face.

Let me walk, Nelson, and no one has to get hurt here.

What the fuck?

She smirked, stiffening her grip on the gun. Give me the money you have. I’m going to leave out that back window there and you don’t tell anyone I was here.

With his pants down, drunk, Nelson nodded.

Elena started walking slowly toward the window gun up and there was a crash and a bang from the room entryway. Nelson froze, dropped to his knees and collapsed face first into the bed, blood spilling from a hole in the side of his head.

Elena’s breath quickened and she turned her attention to the entryway, ducking under cover. She saw an apparatus of a man who stood, gun down by his side, arms relaxed, peering up through the brim of his hat.

She yelled, If you’re looking for Jack he’s downstairs. Then to herself, I knew that sonofabitch would get me killed.

Now, El, that’s no way to say hello to your old friend.

She recognized the voice, Ralph?

Hello, Elena.

She peered from behind the bed.

You ready to get out of here? He reached a gloved hand down to her.

Where? Jack -

Is dead and frankly - anywhere else. He smiled. She remembered the smile from when they were kids. It gave her hope that any future was possible - even when they were stuck in a life of crime in the desert.

Time to turn the page, don’t you agree?

She was in awe, her mouth open and she sat herself up.

I dare you, he winked.

~~~


As the sun went down sweat dripped from the two kids' foreheads as they approached the bridge. They slowed as they reached the crown of it. They forgot about the race and they enjoyed the sun and the chilling loneliness and the breeze of the desert evening. Cicadas sang and the sand which was wisped by the breeze made a glitter sound of their youth.

They sat out of breath.

Do you think he’s coming back?

Who cares? One day, we won’t need him - we don’t need him now.

Elena knew this wasn’t true. Where would they go in an empty world? Who were they?

Ralph grabbed her hand trying to assure her that their destiny was forever sealed together. Somewhere in the background, a wagon approached, a cloud of dust. Perhaps it was Jack, perhaps it was a bandit, they wouldn't know which was worse but that was no matter. Right now, they were together, they were kids in a terrible unforgiving desert.


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