Angel of Mercy

“Winter’s Chill” Brett Reeder Lost River Range, Mackay, Idaho,

The dog barking outside the barn drowned out even the howl of the blue norther. But Angel Favor was not one to be moved by a dog. Not when that wind blew a purple cloud wall from the north over what was a warm November day, smothering it in a deadly freezing hell in but a handful of hours.

But a pair of shotgun barrels poked in his wind-chapped face gave him plenty of reason to move, even if they were being held by this wisp of a girl.

“Whoa, there, Missy. Hope you know what you’re doing with that scatter gun,” Angel said as he held up his hands in exaggerated surrender. The gun looked to be a 12-gauge and the girl’s slender finger was wrapped around both triggers.

“I do. Now what are you doing in our barn? And put the fire out. Now!” the girl said. Angel gauged her to be about 12 too.

“I’m just trying to get out of this dam…I mean this darn blue norther, Missy. Finally get warm. Don’t mean no harm. Didn’t wish to bother the house and me and old Monkey Face over there was about to die if we didn’t some shelter. And quick-like.” Angel pointed to the corner where his shivering roan shared hay with a pair of mules in one of the stalls.

“Hope you don’t mind, I borrowed one of your blankets for my horse. She never could handle the cold. I can’t, either,” Angel said with a grin as he kicked out the small fire he’d built in a hole he dug in the hard-packed dirt floor.

“You haven’t answered my question, Mister,” the girl said as she raised the heavy barrels at Angel’s head again.

“Name’s Favor, Angel Favor, Missy. Or, as my grandma who named me would say, ‘Ahn-hel Fah-vore.’ But folks just call me Angel. I was a couple days out of Panhandle City on my way to the Diamond F looking for work, when this norther blew in like nothing I ever seen. And, well, here we are. So, if you wouldn’t mind…”

“I do mind. You say you came northeast from Panhandle?”

“Yes’m, more or less.”

“You run into anybody on the trail during that time?”

“No, Missy. Not a one.”

“You’re sure,” the girl said, as she eased her grip on the gun and idly let the the 12-gauge barrels droop toward the floor. The expression on her face fell as well.

Angel grabbed the muzzles and pulled the gun from her hands. The girl jumped back and tripped on the oversized boots she wore beneath her blanket robe.

“Honest, little Missy, I don’t mean anyone no harm. I wouldn’t even have stopped here if it weren’t for the cold. And for gosh sakes, now it’s snowing, too. Would it be too much to ask if I could come into your house just to get warm? Here, take the scatter gun back as a sign of good faith,” Angel said.

He offered the girl his hand and helped her to her feet, handing back the shotgun.

“All right, Mister. You can come inside. We’re good Christians in this house and Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger. So that’s what we do”

“Amen to that, little sister,” Angel said, raising his hand to Heaven.

“Glad to hear that you believe those teachings, Mister. But there’s another one I ain’t said yet.”

“What’s that, Missy’?”

“How are you at caring for the sick?”

Once Angel saw to his horse’s comfort, he followed the girl through the freezing wind and cutting snow toward her house, pulling some firewood from the stack by the door. Before he entered, he took a look back at the barn. Or toward the barn, the blizzard having erased it from view, just as it had the footprints he and the girl had made only seconds before.

“This ain’t good,” Angel muttered to himself as he entered the cabin and pushed the door closed.

“All right, Mr. Angel Favor, you can throw one of those logs on the fire and shake out of your coat. There’s coffee in the pot and some stew left in the Dutch oven. Oh, and I’m Martine White. Folks call me Marti,” the girl said.

“I thank you kindly, Miss Marti. I ain’t been this cold since a Norther blow in like this in ’88. And that was a killer. I mean there was cattle foundered and froze in the snow from…”

“Stop! No more,” Marti said. “Now what was it you said about tending to the sick?”

“Well that depends on the kinda sick,” Angel said as he ladled the boiled down dregs of the stew onto a chipped white plate with blue flowers around its rim. “I ain’t know miracle worker or nothing, but I’ve tended some old boys back from snakebite, fevers, even got one boy from Kansas through the bloody flux.”

That’s when Angel heard the weak cough from behind a curtain at the far end of the cabin.

“What do you know about the grippe?” Marti asked. She pulled back the curtain and revealed a woman, Angel guessed to be in her mid-thirties, lying in a brass-framed double bed.

“My mother’s been sick with this fever and cough for days now and is only getting weaker. My Pa didn’t know what more he could do and set out yesterday morning to fetch a doctor from Panhandle City to see if he could help, you know,” Marti’s voice cracked, “save her.”

“You say your mama’s been like this for a few days now?” Angel asked.

“Yep. Fever, aches all over, then this cough. Mister, when you said you didn’t see my father on the road to Panhandle, an’ then this blizzard started, all I could think was I was going to be an orphan in a few days. And that’s only if this storm lifts.” Marti took the wet dish towel off her mother’s forehead and dipped it into a washers on the table next to her bed. She rung out the towel and placed back on her mother’s head.

“She’s burning up, Mister. Can you help at all?”

“Damn, Missy, the grippe, that there Russian influenza, is nothing I want to get too close to. I seen it run through Indian camps, cow camps, whole towns and leave…well, let’s say it wasn’t a good thing.”

“Then there’s nothing we can do. I don’t even know if my father’s made it to Panhandle or is holed up someplace in this storm, or his horse foundered or busted it’s leg, or…”

“Worryin’ like that’s not going to help your Ma or your pa. And most ‘specially you, Miss Marti.” Angel said.

He quickly put on his coat, pulled down his hat and moved toward the door.

“Your gonna leave us? What kind of Christian man would do such a thing?” Marti shouted as he grabbed the doorknob.

Angel turned and said, “I never claimed to be the greatest Christian ever wore shoes, but you stay here.” With that he opened the door to the howling wind and cold and strode out in the direction of the barn. he returned in a couple of minutes, his hat and shoulders covered in snow.

“Missy, would take my hat and shake the snow off it into your Mama’s basin there? We gotta help get her fever down first. Now, please tell me your Mama is a good baker. I need me some cinnamon,” Angel said as he shed his coat and placed it over a chair.

Marti looked up with a start from dropping the snow off the brim of Angel’s Stetson into the basin.

“Baking? Baking? My Mama’s dying here and you want to make a damn cake?”

“No, Missy, I ain’t much of a baker. But I seen this tin of medicines they sell in Dallas what claim to help with the influenza. Says on the tin they’re made of cinnamon and quinine.

“My mother’s spices are in that cabinet by the stove, but where in God’s name are you going to get…”

Angel pulled a small bottle from his pocket and plunked it on the table top.

“I ain’t never traveled without it since they give it to me in Cuba for the malaria. It’s good for fevers and whatever’s in your blood that might be making you sick. The cinnamon, or so my big sister taught me, can help with pains and helps with colds and the grippe. Now I don’t know how much of what is in them pills they had in the apothecary, but I’d say your mother’s not got much to lose if we make us a weak tea of these things and have her take as much as you can give her. Then there’s only one other thing I know that’ll help her now,” Angel said.

“What’s that?” Marti asked.

“Pray, Miss Marti. Pray like you never did before.”

“Here, Mama, try to take some of this tea. Might help you feel better,” Marti said as she spooned some of Angel’s concoction to her mother’s lips. Marti heard the door creak open behind her and felt the wind whoosh snow into the kitchen.

“Mister!” she called, as Angel closed the door behind him.

“Gosh darn that man. Now he leaves me to fend for myself. Don’t worry, Mama, I’m sure Pa’s on his way back with the doctor. We just had a bit of a storm that’s slowing him down,” she said. But Marti was beginning to feel none of them were going to survive this storem, one way or another.

Then the door burst open again and Angel rushed into the cabin looking like a Stetson-wearing snowman.

“You miss me, Miss Marti?” Angel said with something between a grin and a grimace. “I think I got something else that might help your mother until your daddy gets back with the sawbones.” Angel pulled yet another bottle from the pocket of his gum rubber rain slicker.

“What do you have now, Mister Favor?”

“You can call me Angel, Missy, seeing as how we’re going to be neighbors for awhile. This here is some horse liniment I picked up in Panhandle to help ease old Monkey Face’s aches and pains. Mine, too, truth to tell.”

“You’re not putting that stuff on my mother,” Marti blurted. “Like to burn the skin right off her.”

“No, Missy, I want her to breathe it.”

“What?”

“Yep. I’m gonna put a dab of this here liniment in a pot of boiling water and let you mama breathe in the steam. This stuff’s got camphor and menthol in it and I just know I seen something in that same apothecary that folks with colds were supposed to smear on their chests. Supposed to break up their catarrh. Pretty sure it was something like this stuff. Sure as heck smelled something like it,” Angel said as he put a pot on the stove and set it to boiling.

“I’m just going to use a teeny tiny bit, all right? Just to get the vapors up. Might help. Couldn’t hurt more than what your poor mama’s going through right now. If I’m right, it might help her get up some of that stuff and ease her breathing,” he said.

After that, Angel wrapped some snow in an oilcloth tablecloth and his own coat and placed them on either side of the Mrs. White.

“Why don’t you get some sleep, Miss Marti?” Angel said to the girl. “I’ll keep the fire going and an eye on your mama.”

“But, Mama and, and my pa…”

“I’ll be listening for him, too. Was he well mounted when he left? Did he have a blanket and a decent coat?”

“My father has a good horse. Marcus Aurelius, he calls him. He’s a foreman at the Diamond F, so he needs a good horse for that and to keep our own stock under watch. And, yeah, he had a blanket on Marcus and Mama wouldn’t let him leave without his new coat,” Marti said.

“That’s good news, Missy. Now why don’t you get some sleep and I’ll keep an eye on your mama. Get me another pot of coffee going, if you don’t mind.”

“All right,” Marti sighed. “I’ve been up for a whole day and a half now and I don’t think I could stay awake another minute. Thank you, Mister Favor.”

“You can call me Angel, Missy. We been partners in helping your mama and I think partners can call each other by their first names,” Angel said with a grin.

“Thank you again, Mist…I mean Angel,“ Marti murmured as she rolled into the blankets of her bed behind another curtain dividing that end of the cabin. Angel could hear her rhythmic, soft breathing within a minute.

“Well, I guess I’d better make me some coffee,” Angel said. After the water had come to a boil, he let the ground beans sit in the pot for about a minute and then poured himself a cup from the rack that contained other pieces of the blue decorated china upon which he had eaten his stew. When was that? Four, five, six hours ago? He’d lost track of time. That sure is some mighty fine dishes to own when you’re living out here, he thought.

Angel looked over at Mrs. White. He had been fearful of touching Marti’s mother because, after all, she was a married woman. A gentleman does not touch a woman of such refinement in her nighty without benefit of clergy, he thought. Or, in some of the places he’d been, five dollars.

He also wasn’t so sure he wanted to get close enough to Mrs. White should she give him the illness that might take her life that very night. But with Marti sleeping soundly, the poor little mite, Angel knew he’d have to minister to the woman himself. He placed another pot of water on the stove and fetched the basin in which he had placed the liniment and water before.

“Damn, this does have a certain something to it,” he said to himself as his eyes watered and nose ran. He made another cup of his quinine and cinnamon concoction and moved to Mrs. White’s bedside.

He lifted the spoon to her slips and she weakly said, “Martine?”

“She sleeping over in her corner, Missus,” Angel said.

“Doctor?” she wheezed.

“No, ma’am. Just someone who stopped to help.” She took a sip of the tea and gave a weak cough. “That’s it, Missus. Let’s get some of that stuff up.”

“Matthew?” she whispered.

“No, ma’am. Angel, Angel Fav…oh, your husband. No, ma’am. He ain’t back yet. But don’t you worry. Little Martine has been taking extra good care of you. You’ve got yourself a strong little girl over there. She a downright hero.”

Mrs. White gave Angel a weak smile and began to cough again.

“Ma’am? I want to help you along a little with that cough. First have another sip of this tea and then I want you to sit up a little and breathe in some steam from a basin I’m preparin’. Think you can do that for me, ma’am?”

She nodded.

“Good. I’ll be back in two swishes with my other concoction.”

She grasped his hand and, in a weak voice, said, “Thank you, Mister…?”

“Angel, ma’am. Angel Favor. Now you just rest here for only a minute.”

Angel returned with the liniment-infused basin of water and a towel he had soaked. He placed the basin next to the woman and held the towel her head to keep the vapors where she could breathe them.

Mrs. White’s breath rattled in her chest and Angel thought this might be the end.

“Marti, Marti, come over here to your mama,” he yelled. He was fearful her mother was dying and didn’t want either of the White womenfolk to not say goodbye if this was it.

Angel pulled the towel away as Marti ran to her mother’s bedside.

“Mama? Mama? Are you all right?” Marti said.

Mrs, White gave a great sigh, followed a wet cough of loosened phlegm.

“Cover her mouth and let her spit that stuff out, Marti,” Angel said, just as Mrs. White coughed up another bit of the stuff congesting her lungs. She then took a deep inhalation and coughed again.

“Oh, Mama.” Marti cried. “Is this good, Mr. Angel?”

Angel’s mind was spinning. Had he killed this poor woman with his ministrations?

“I ain’t sure, Marti. Not at all. But better out of her than in, I’d imagine,” Angel said unconvincingly.

The dog suddenly barked, the cabin door flew open and a large man with a torn bit of blanket wrapped around his face stood in the doorway. He was covered in snow. Behind him, Angel could see the snow was not falling so heavy as before, but the wind still howled.

“Who’re you?” the man growled, a Colt pistol suddenly appearing in his hand.

“Pa!” Marti shouted and ran to the snow-covered figure, who raised his Peacemaker.

Angel stood back from Mrs. White and said, “Easy there, mister. I’m just a traveler caught in this norther who your daughter asked to help with her ailin’ mama.”

“It’s all right, Pa. Mister Favor has been helping me. I didn’t know what to do when you didn’t get back after the storm hit,” Marti said.

From the bed they hear a voice say, “Matthew, close that door before we freeze to death.”

“Sarah? Sarah!” Matthew White cried, holstered his revolver and rushed past Angel to his wife. “I was so afraid I’d return and you’d be…you’d be…gone. And…what the hell is all this? You smell like a gimpy horse and a tin of muffins. And the bed is getting wet from…is this snow?”

“That’d be some of the things I did to help your Missus,” Angel said.

Matthew White felt his wife’s forehead and noted her fever had broken. Her breathing was stronger and her grip on her husband was stronger than when he left two days before.

“I tried to get to Panhandle, but the norther overtook me and Marcus and I had to take shelter in the abandoned barn at the old Blandings’ place. Never could make it to the doctor,” he said, shaking his head.

“That’s how I found Mr. Favor, Pa. In our barn,” Marti said.

“I saw the roan in with my mules. You had to take my horse’s brand new blanket for that old mare?” White said.

“Under the circumstances, I didn’t get too choosy. I took the one on top,” Angel said.

“Well, whatever you did, it doesn’t matter because you helped my wife and daughter when I couldn’t. I don’t know how, but Sarah seems to have broken through from what I was afraid was the influenza we’ve been hearing so much about. I don’t know how we can thank you,” Matthew White said.

“Well, once all this storm ends up, I imagine you’ll might need some hands over at the Diamond F. I’m even better at taking care of stock than I am people,” Angel said.

“And he’s really good at taking care of people, Pa,” Marti said as she looked up into her father’s eyes.

“He’s a godsend, Matthew,” Sarah whispered from her bed.

“You got a job, Mister… I’m sorry, what’d you say your name was?”

Ahn-hel Fah-vore. But most folks call me Angel.”

This story came out of nowhere and tried going back there three times. But, over the past three days I battled my way though it. I wanted to do a story about one of the great Blue Northers that struck the Texas panhandle in the latter part of the 19th Century, or the one in 1911. My friends from Texas and the southern Plains know what I’m talking about. I didn’t realize when I “built” Angel, how resourceful he was. He surprised all of us. Hope you could suspend your disbelief for a spell and enjoyed the story.

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Faces False and True

Iroquois False Face Mask

The lab smelled of dirt and plaster. It reminded Dr. Jacqueline Bird of the houses around the Akwesasne Reservation her father would help renovate on weekends to help pay for her education.

Jacquie smiled at the memory of her dad coming to the door covered in plaster dust save for his hands and eye sockets when she’d arrive with his lunch and a beer. Later, she’d spot the empties tossed in the haul-away dumpster. Their brown glass cast an amber glow onto the broken wall lath within, like browned ribs of the long-dead man arrayed before her on her work table.

“Daydreaming, Dr. Bird?” Jacquie’s boss Dr. Raoul Dumont said as he popped up behind her in the archeology/anthropology department lab in Syracuse. Her reverie disappeared like a puff of white dust from the protective plaster covering she blew off the remains of this soldier. She’d unearthed them herself from the dig site on the western shore of Lake George.

“Not exactly, Dr. Dumont. And I wish you wouldn’t jump up behind me like that while I’m cleaning and examining these remains. This man suffered enough without me further torturing his bones,” Jacquie said as she removed her safety glasses and appeared as the dusty echo of her father.

Dumont moved closer to Jacquie and reached out to move his finger down the page of her notes. As he did so, his hand once again brushed against Jacquie’s. His head floated just behind her right ear.

“So you believe this subject was scalped, Dr. Bird? You yourself have said that even postmortem head wounds can leave behind signs of hemorrhaging in the cranial etching. I do not see any signs of such hemorrhaging here. What proof do you have he experienced such torture? Couldn’t these just as easily be postmortem predation caused by scavenging…,” he paused and breathed “animals?” into Jacquie’s ear.

Jacquie recalled a conversation with her bachelor’s school friend Edie Blaine in the instant the hairs on her neck assumed an upright and locked positions.

Edie, a professor of anthropology at Dumont’s previous university, had warned her of Dumont’s reputation for harassing female students and colleagues alike.

“He gets away with so much because of his connections in the World Archeological Conference and the Society for American Archeology,” Edie told her. “Plus his uncle’s a ranking member of the Senate Education Committee. Connections and direct access to the money tree make him a tough little bastard to cut off for any university. Yours has more shine, so he jumped at the chance for more professional prestige and fresh sweater meat.”

“My report will prove my theory, Dr. Dumont. But let me show you how I believe my subject suffered at the hands of people may have been some of my ancestors,” Jacquie said.

Sliding from her stool, Jacquie looked Dumont in the eyes as she held a pointed probe in one hand and a scalpel in the other.

“I believe the man was a French Marine or Canadian like your forebears, sent down to stir up distrust among the Mohawk and English settlers on the southern end of the lake. I’ve seen wounds like this before and read documentation of their sources,” she said.

“And what, pray tell, was that, Dr. Bird?” Dumont said with an amused grin.

“In the documented case, the raiders kidnapped, raped or killed both white and native girls. My Mohawk ancestors captured one of them. As you know, theirs was a matriarchy of sorts and such crimes were often handled by the women of the clan. In this case,” Jacquie jabbed at Dumont’s crotch with her probe, “repeatedly piercing his pelvis with sewing needles, before removing his genitals. Very effective deterrent, don’t you think?”

Dumont recoiled from the probe poking at his crotch.

“Excuse me?” he said.

“They let him bleed out, hung from a rack like a deer. Before he expired, though, they removed the scalp from his exsanguinated skull, sewing it to his crotch, like a merkin. Hence, more pelvic scratches. Total demasculinization. Like to see the method they used?” Jacquie said, putting down her probe and reaching for Dumont’s toupee with scalpel still in hand.

“No! Thank you, Dr, Bird. I’ll leave you to your work,” Dumont said, looking like he’d seen a ghost. He scurried from the lab with his hands shoved deep in his pockets.

Jacquie returned to her work with a small smile. She saw the reflection of her dust-covered face on her blank computer screen and wiped the plaster from her cheeks.

“Have to call Daddy later to tell him how Granny’s stories of her grannies’ grannies’ grannies cut off another white dick today like they did in the old days,” Jacquie said to herself. Then she blew more dust off the bones of another man who didn’t recognize who he was dealing with.

Wanted to write up a quick flash piece for my friend Dan Mader’s weekly 2 Minutes. Go! flash fiction feature on his site, Unemployed Imagination. Wanted to keep it under 4,000 characters, but some first drafts just take on lives of their own. Not exactly sure where this came from, maybe a subconscious mashup of the current news and my penchant for frontier New York history. It’ll do in a pinch for a writer in the depressed doldrums.

Another Slice of Blood Orange

 

Sometimes I sit here
in the dark and ask myself
why I started this,
this burning of lifetime
spitting words into the air
like orange pits or
like blood from a split lip.
Wasn’t for any notoriety
since no one was supposed
to read them but me
and a very few who wondered
what the hell this was about.
And it wasn’t to write books,
lord knows, since I’d forgotten
how to read them years ago,
let alone write them.
It wasn’t, like you said,
for the approbation, since
I never belong with anyone.
Couldn’t be for what you call
stroking, since I’m unused to,
uncomfortable with touching.
I guess it was for a kind of
recognition, though, because
over these past ten years,
I might finally have recognized
my futile, inky-souled nature,
the guy spitting out orange pits
and blood to myself for myself.

My take on Robert Lee Brewer’s Wednesday poetry prompt in Writer’s Digest last week. He wanted a Recognition poem. I found the prompt and poem in my sleeplessness around 3:00AM this morning. Ahhh…throwback to the dark solitude of my Insomniac Poet days.

Step Nine

There’s this guy who penned a story
he’ll never share with you.
It’s a tale of two people who
should have, but ultimately never knew

their true feelings for each other
but should have sensed them coming.
Not roaring like a freight train, but
maybe a funeral parade’s muted drumming.

In it he tells her how he’s sorry
for the way he let her down,
though she’s so hurt she’ll forever view
him as a vain and heartless clown.

But he was compelled to tell her,
to again open his scarred wounds,
to make amends for damage he’d done
so he could listen to the old tunes

that always brought to his mind an Us
where only a He and She existed.
And though he fought like hell to forget her,
some of the obsessive feelings persisted.

So he comes clean with his long story,
all of the wherefores and the whys,
of how he one day just disappeared,
bringing her to forever despise

the guy who always lent a sympathetic ear
and a strong shoulder she could lean on.
How he followed some “expert’s” orders
to break away from the damage he was so keen on.

It ends with him saying a last goodbye,
after listening to her side of their tale.
But you’ll never read this story,
that’s always been his white whale.

It’s something he fought for years
to get out of his crippled system,
but now that he has, he feels no catharsis,
only realization of this hard wisdom:

You can follow all the steps prescribed
to cure your crippling addictions,
but until you confess your failings to yourself,
your true stories are nothing but true fictions.

Just so you understand, my poem is only a free-written, first-draft creative exercise in storytelling and rhyme. What is it they say at the beginning of Law & Order episodes? “The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event.” However, feel free to run it on your mind’s big screen through whatever personal lens you wish. It’s yours now.

Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold

Albany from the Helderberg Escarpment

Lew “Ruby” Rubio hadn’t cased this place before deciding to break in. But he’d been on the run from the cops in Albany for two sleepless days and nights and figured he could hide up in this cottage in the Helderbergs for a spell while everything cooled off down in the city.

Lew figured no one had been home in at least a week from the number of newspapers that peppered the apron of the driveway. He decided to jimmy the sliding door on the side away from the road, even though trees blocked view of the most of house from County Rte. 10. With a screwdriver he discovered in the garden shed and twenty years’ practice in the Bronx and Albany, he was standing in the kitchen in thirty seconds.

Once inside, Lew found his suspicions were correct. The place had been buttoned up for some time. A check in the bathroom showed the electricity on and the water off. He found the main, gave it a good twist to the left and he figured he was set for as long as he wanted to stay there. As long, that is, as he remained vigilant for any visitors from the County Sheriff’s Department or the State Police.

But first thing’s first.

“I’m frigging starving,” Lew said as he walked to the refrigerator. Inside, he found jars of pickles, olives, condiments, three cans of Mountain Dew, two bottles of Nine Pin Cider, a large unopened bottle of Ommegang Rare Vos ale and a half-bottle of 2016 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Well, this is all very nice, but where’s the damn real food?” Lew said, shoving the refrigerator door closed and moving to the cabinets that lined the wall above the sink. In the dim moonlight, he found cans of Progresso Chicken Noodle and Minestrone soups, some boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese, envelopes of Brown Sugar and Cinnamon oatmeal, a jar of peanut butter and three tubes of Pringles barbecue potato chips.

“Jesus, maybe something’s in the freezer. Aannnnd…two scrawny frost-burgers, half a bag of Tater Tots and two bottles of vodka. What the hell is up with these drunks?” Lew said, as he closed the freezer door, casting the kitchen back into darkness..

He froze when he thought he heard the crunch of something on the gravel driveway out front. Then he dropped low when he saw the headlights.

“Shit, not already,” he said, catching his breath as a car-mounted spotlight swept the exterior of the front of the house and the woods on both sides, its beam cutting off a slice of the darkness in the kitchen. Lew crawled toward the sliding door again, ready to make a run for it if necessary. But the Sheriff’s patrol car backed out onto Rte. 10 and once again he was alone.

“I’d better eat something now, in case they come back,” Lew said to himself. So he opened two bags of oatmeal, tossed the contents into a bowl, added water from the now-functioning tap and put it in the microwave for a minute. While it cooked, Lew poured a can of Mountain Dew into one of the red Solo cups he found on the shelf, and topped it off with some of the icy vodka.

“The Dew for the caffeine and the hooch for my nerves,” he laughed. He pulled the steaming bowl from the microwave, gave it a stir and slowly ate it, washing it down with the fortified Dew. Finished with his oatmeal, he dug a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter from the jar he left open on the counter, sucked down a hard cider and decided he’d better try getting some rest.

Slowly, he climbed the stairs up to the shed dormer, where he found two bedrooms and a half-bathroom. But, since the dormer was on the side away from the road, he thought he’d better get back downstairs just in case the cops made this place a regular stop on their patrols.

“You never know who might break in on you,” Lew said with a laugh.

Lew decided to crash on the futon by the sliding door, just in case. He opened the glass slider to allow some cool air into the pace through the screen. He then propped himself up so he faced the driveway and settled in for what remained of the night.

“Maybe I can steal a day or two here before I hit the road,“ he thought. Within two minutes he was sleeping soundly.

He never saw the headlights, nor any spotlight, but the sound of someone moving around outside coming through the open slider roused him around 3:00 AM.

“Shit. Where the hell did they come from,” Lew thought as he eased himself off the futon and padded over to the wall next to the slider. He peeked out one side of doorway, saw the shadow moving toward the doorway.

“I ain’t going back for them to put in the county lockup. I either gotta make a run for it into the woods when this dude moves to the other side, or I have to take care of him, myself…right now,” Lew thought.

He looked around for something to use as a weapon, if he needed it. Once again Lew heard the rustling sound and a chill ran through him, his heart began pounding, his mouth dried so much he could barely swallow. He saw the wrought-iron poker leaning against the wood stove and knew what he had to do. If someone came through the slider, Lew was certain he could take them down and put some distance between himself and this cottage before daybreak and any more cops could come along.

But he still hadn’t seen any sign of a vehicle out front, hadn’t heard the crunching gravel. He wondered if what he heard was another breaking and entering star looking to steal whatever of value he could find. Lew suddenly felt more superior to this interloper and figured it was time to put end to his stay here one way or another.

He’d eaten the owners’ oatmeal, drank their cider and vodka, made use of their futon and now he was going to use their fireplace poker. The intruder was now moving closer along the wall to the sliding door.

“This is it,” Lew said, taking a deep breath. “He’s right there and now’s the time to confront this asshole one way or another. One, two thr…”

Lew slid open the door and jumped out of the house and turned dead right, his poker above his head. He saw the silhouette of the intruder and raised his poker high, saying, “Get out of here, asshole, if you know what’s…”

But that was it. The brown bear, leading her cubs in a raid on the bird feeders and trash cans of the neighborhood, rose on her hind legs, stepped into Lew, and with a swipe sent him reeling bloody into the forest. She then burst through the slider doorway and went straight for the open peanut butter jar on the counter while her cubs licked the unwashed oatmeal bowl.

State Police found Lew lying beside County Rte. 10 about a mile east later that morning. They transported him to the emergency room at Albany Medical Center, where doctors reattached the blond-haired flap of scalp the mama of the three-bear rural crime spree flayed off him on her way to breakfast.

During his three-year stint at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, Lew picked up a few nicknames. Early on, the other inmates called him Zipperhead or Ruby. But as his hair grew back and word of how he was apprehended got around the yard, Lew Rubio was known by inmate and corrections officers alike as Goldilocks.

First draft of my first chance to try crafting a story for Week Two of Story-a-Day September. (I’m doing best I can, but  it’s been a true time crunch.) Since I may not get to all five of this week’s prompts, I decided to messily combine two:  1) Write a gender-swapped version of a previously-told story, and 2) Set a story in the opposite setting to what it was originally (in this case, contemporary vs. non-contemporary and realistic vs. fantastic). Suffice to say, it ain’t easy to draft a cohesive story while minding three-year-olds and on four hours’ sleep a night. But here’s my best-stab first draft.

Widow’s Walk

“I see she’s still up there, Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth,” Enoch Steele said, jerking his thumb toward the tower that craned its neck above all other roof ridge lines that peered out at the entrance to Cloister Cove.

“Aye, been there every day for three years now, rain or shine, breeze of gale, waiting for the Cloisters Gardenia to turn-to ‘round the breakwater and deliver her Cap’n Matthew Rawlins back to her pining bosom,” the chandler’s clerk Martin Smoot replied while brushing a smudge of tobacco ash from Steel’s black wool coat.

“That ship’s as good as gone, wrecked on the Horn, scuttled by pirates off Java, its hull stove in by some rank bull off the Galapagos. We’d have heard something by now. A shank of driftwood, a bit of flotsam, a story passed from sailor to sailor, nothing. That woman waits for naught but a memory. G’day to you, Mr. Smoot,” Steele said as he grasped Smoot’s wrist, pushed it to the chandler’s chest and transferred the ash on the clerk’s fingers to his own apron.

As Steele walked to the wharves, Smoot ambled toward the peeling white house with the barred windows where Cap’n Matt’s lady stood on the widow’s walk, like one of Columbus’ crew in a crow’s nest, searching for any sign of Cathay on the horizon.

Though only moved to Cloister Cove three years before, Loretta Booth had become as much a part of the local scenery and color in town as that great old house, the bells in St. Augustine’s and the First Methodist Churches and the stench of whale blubber reeking from the harbor. Each had their places in the heartbeat of Cloister Cove, he thought. They were there, they were special, but no one paid much attention to that which made them so anymore. Each man, woman and child went about their business, neither looking up or down, nor wrinkling their nose at that which might make a manure-crusted farmer puke out his paunch.

A week later, while making a delivery of a fine German chronometer to the Masonic Hall, Smoot stopped in the middle of Captain’s Way, the town’s main thoroughfare, and decided to take stock of his senses and this little burg’s inventory of lives and property.

The onshore breeze still carried the gagging ghosts of sperm whales harvested from off the coast of Peru by men who could leave pregnant wives when they set sail and could return just as a child who knew them not celebrated its second birthday. He knew the inexorable lure of the sea for them, though.

“It’s best this business be so foul and dangerous, lest they just decide never to come home,” he muttered to himself.

The bells in St. Augustine’s chimed in four pairs of bong-bong, eight bells, just as the Methodist Church’s steeple pealed the requisite twelve times. Each was signaling noon, though that might confuse inlanders not steeped in the argot of the seaman.

Smoot smiled at how he and his fellow Cloisterites were a different breed even from other Connecticut Yankees. And above it all were the cries of the seagulls, a cacophony so constant that it was as easily ignored as the sound of waves lapping the shore or slapping the hulls of the vessels moored in the harbor.

As he walked toward the wharves and the chandler’s, Smoot looked up at the high roof of Captain Matthew Rawlins’ house, to assure himself that all was right in this little world within the greater world. That world then tilted on its axis. Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth was not manning her post on the widow’s walk.

Being a man of numbers, ledgers, balance sheets, Smoot saw this error in Cloister Cove’s books of life and couldn’t let it go without finding a good reason for this blatant discrepancy in his day-to-day.

He trotted up to the expansive front porch that sat like the lap on the old dowager that was Cap’n Mattie’s home away from his home on the seas. Smoot cupped his hands around his eyes to cut the glare and attempted to look inside for any sign of Miss Loretta Gardenia. But he saw no movement, not even the form of the captain’s West Indian cook, Sophie-Maude.

Now Smoot’s eccentricity was turning to a kind of fright, as if gravity would dissolve and all of Earth’s inhabitants would lose the tethers to their mother’s breast and be cast like seed into the void. He rapped urgently on the window light in the top of the heavy front door made of teak the Captain had salvaged from an English frigate that had not made it round the Horn in ’35. When he heard not a sound from within, Smoot pounded powerless on the seasoned planking that had resisted French shot at Trafalgar.

He shouted, “Miss Loretta Gardenia, are you there? It’s Martin Smoot from Bennett and Tinch. Are you well?”

When again he heard no reply, nor any sound, from within, Smoot ran to the back of the house where he found not only the barred windows extended, but the security-conscious Captain Mattie had installed a steel bulkhead door. He also found the firewood axe left in the cutting stump by Sophie-Maude.

Axe in hand, Smoot ran back to the front of the house and attempted chopping his was through the great front door, all the while screaming, “Miss Loretta Gardenia, get to your post or come to the door. We need you on that walk.”

As Smoot raised the axe for one more ineffective blow, a rough hand grabbed it, while another spun the chandler around and pushed him to the porch floor. Smoot looked up and saw a young man in a naval officer’s dark blue uniform jacket and white trousers, the axe held high and threatening as if leading a boarding party.

“What in blazes do you think you’re doing, sir?” the young officer shouted. “How dare you. I should box your ears, or better yet, take you down to my ships and have you bound to the mast for taste of my bosun’s cat.”

“Andrew stop!” came a woman’s voice from the street.

“Mother, please don’t hurry. I’ve got this madman under control. Look what he’s done to…”

“Matthew’s door! Why would…? Mister Smoot?”

“Oh, Miss Loretta Gardenia, I was so worried. You weren’t at your post looking for Captain Matthew and I thought the worst,” Smoot said.

“What could be worse, Mr. Smoot? That Matthew has not been heard from in all these years? That no sign of the Gardenia been found in any of the whaling grounds from Patagonia to the Sea of Japan?”

“Then…then why have you been up on the widow’s walk all these years for, madam?” Smoot said, more confused and addled than he had been when running around the house, axe in hand.

“Why, my son here, Andrew Booth. This young apprentice officer headed for the first class of the National Naval School in Annapolis. He’s been three years at sea.”

“But Cap’n Matthew…everyone thought you were…”

“Waiting for the Captain? No, Mr. Smoot. That ship, if you will pardon the expression, has indeed sailed. But no one ever thought to stop by and talk, to ask how I was, if I’d heard from Matthew,” Loretta Gardenia said.

“Well, we just figured…I just thought…”

“No, Mr. Smoot you did not think. You saw a woman pining for her son, not her missing paramour. Now, if you would kindly remove yourself from my front porch, my property. My solicitor will be contacting Mr. Bennett about what can’t be replaced — my door. Good day, Mister Smoot,” Loretta Gardenia said.

Her son, Midshipman Andrew Booth, hefted Martin Smoot as he might half-full seabag and set him on Captain’s Way toward Bennett and Tinch and an uncertain rest of that day and tomorrow.

As he walked toward the wharves, head down and trying to see where his figuring had gone wrong half an hour before, Smoot didn’t notice the wind had shifted from off the sea to from the hills surrounding Cloister Cove, blowing the perfume of pine and oak over the stench of the whale ships. He didn’t hear St. Augustine’s ring the bong-bong of two bells, 1:00 PM. He didn’t notice the change in the sound of the keening gulls that climbed and swooped all around him.

Loretta Gardenia handed the front door key to her son and said, “Come, Andrew, let’s go in for some tea. You can tell me more about school, your voyages and how you found Matthew in Alta California. I can’t believe he would scuttle the Gardenia in, where did you say?”

“Yerba Buena Bay, Mother. He and some of his crew hauled the hull ashore and, with a certain Señorita Veronica Valdez, turned it into a tavern and bordello, catering to and robbing the gold seekers headed to the Sierras. With no law to speak of out there, and his obvious lack of conscience, he had become a man of high regard in the darkest, lowest places.”

“Did you express your displeasure with his abandonment of your mother?”

“I did, mother, and when we parted, I can assure you he was weeping in contrition,” Andrew Booth said with a tight grin. “The day before our frigate set out again for the Baja, the Captain was not commanding the Gardenia. He was not to be found. Señorita Veronica’s brother told me the Captain must have decided to join the argonauts in seeking his fortune in the gold fields. A man could disappear in the Sierras in a heartbeat, Mother. I do not expect you — or anyone — will be hurt by his selfish, sinful ways again.”

“I see,” Loretta Gardenia said, composing herself for a moment. “My brave boy, I’m afraid all of today’s news and excitement has rendered me a bit tired. Would you mind if I retired to my room for a short rest? Sophie-Maude will be back from the market in Mystic within the hour and we shall have a lovely dinner celebrating your safe return.”

But Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth did not go to her room. She climbed the stairs to the roof of the house and mounted her widow’s walk. She looked out over the harbor, cocked her ear at the sound of the gulls, whose circling flights and weeping cries she stood observed from her lonely perch all these years. She above all could discern the change that had at least momentarily come over Cloister Cove and her life.

She knew the sound of seagulls crying. Now she wondered, were they laughing?

This is my fourth story based on one of the five prompts I was given for Weeks One of Story-a-Day September. Don’t know as I’ll make all five now, what with Week Two’s prompts in my mailbox, but I may make a run at it over the weekend. The prompt here was pretty much the last line of this piece. I guess I’ve written this story backwards, from the back end to front.

On the Rocks

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon as Andi Simkins positioned the empty glasses in the dishwasher, poured the detergent into the dispenser, clicked shut the door and pressed the buttons to bring it to whirring life. Other than the one in her hand, she’d run out of clean rocks glasses.

Andi fished a handful of ice from the freezer and clinked them into her tumbler. From the liquor cabinet she withdrew a new bottle of Ketel One, gave the black top a vicious twist to break its seal and poured enough into her glass to turn the pile of crescent-shaped cubes into miniature icebergs.

She walked into the family room and settled into the sofa, took a large sip from her glass and placed it on the cocktail table next to the copy of Jami Attenberg’s “All Grown Up” she’d started three times (because her sister insisted she read it) but never got past its first thirty pages. She picked up the book for Try #4, but after six page-flips she gave a resigned sigh, picked up her glass and took another great sip.

Andi looked into her glass as the vodka rested for a second in her mouth then slid down her throat. She was surprised at how the sunlight sifting through the vertical blinds was converted into rainbows by the cut glass, the ice and the vodka. But then the glow changed to neon tangerine and Andi’s eyes grew wide at the color and quality of of the light that painted the gray room a citrus hue, but locked it and her behind the black bars of the blinds’ shadows.

Pulling aside the blinds, Andi gave a little gasp and shaded her eyes. She finished her vodka and thought she’d pour herself another. She turned and took a step toward the liquor cabinet, but stopped and faced the scene playing out beyond the patio again.

Lifting her glass to her lips, she sucked in the dilute dregs of the vodka and a couple of ice cubes, which she crunched between her teeth.

“Joel, you’ve got to hurry up here and see this,” Andi called to her husband down in what Joel Simkins called his Subterranean Lair.

“I’ll be up as soon as I finish this part of the Times crossword, hon,” Joel replied from his leather lounger. And I could hear a football game providing Joel’s background soundtrack from his 50-inch flatscreen Samsung. She often wondered why he needed a drive-in movie screen down there when he used the television primarily for ambient noise.

I guess because he can, she thought.

“Lemme see…54 Across…seven-letter word for skyline,” Joel mumbled to himself, just an Eagle player intercepted a pass directed toward a late-afternoon sun-blinded Giant receiver. That sent the Philly crowd into a high-decibel frenzy. Joel looked up at the screen and recalled his last trip to the City of Brotherly Love. Business. Always business. But Philly was where he struck up his special relationship with Patty Diana, who’d since become known as his “work wife” around the office.

Andi, still watching the sunset, transfixed and hopeful, called one more time, “Joel, please, you’ll miss this if you wait much longer….”

And when he didn’t answer, Andi sighed once again, stood by the patio window, watching the spectacular demise of another day in the overall autumn of things.

It reminded her of all those afternoons spent looking out the back window of their third-floor walkup. Bathed in their own glow, Joel would comb his fingers through the tangle of her auburn hair as she’d beam at him with her gold-flecked blue eyes. Over the expanse of apartment buildings, they watched the sun sink, a searing communion of light and heat, beyond the southwestern horizon.

The sunsets were dazzling, Andi recalled, as well as how the encroaching darkness would be spangled in sprays of stars, even with the bedroom door closed. In tonight’s gloaming, the shadowy bars had expanded into an overall darkness of nebulous freedom or solitary confinement.

Andi had to admit, though, tonight’s sundown had its own melancholy charm — like a fire decaying into glowing coals — when viewed through a fresh glass of Ketel One on the rocks.

The third of my efforts based on one of five Story-a-Day September 2017’s Week One prompts. This one called for using or being inspired by the phrase “The sunsets were dazzling.” I remembered an old Five Sentence Fiction outline I whipped off one afternoon back on the job. I rewrote it with a bit more meat on its protagonist’s bones. Photo by the author.