PIECES OF DESTINY
The rest of the day went by in a blur. I busied myself in the general store’s stockroom, helping Rufus unload and replenish our merchandise on the back shelves. I mulled over the tumultuous events of the day. What in God’s name could I have been thinking? I thought wearily. I realized now that killing Truman wouldn’t give me my voice back. Sure, the revenge would probably feel great for a solid ten seconds... but then what? No. It made no sense for me to murder anybody — not for this. I never could have lived with the guilt. Must’ve been aftereffects from the pain meds Mrs. Colt’s been giving me every day, I mused.
Still, no matter how Travis felt about me, I couldn’t stay in St. Louis anymore. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but for the moment my thought was that anywhere but here would be better. What I needed was to go off in search of adventure and find out why I was in 1864 to begin with. Maybe Travis was right: fighting destiny just wasn’t possible. And maybe Truman was meant to live. For all I knew, he was related to Harry Truman, the President who dropped the bombs on Japan to end World War II. Fat chance of that pimply-ass kid fathering a future American President, I thought, shaking my head.
As a distant church clock tower struck 5PM, Mrs. McBillin began to dim the kerosene lanterns along the aisles in preparation for closing time. A couple of last-minute customers came by to pick up a few things, and I rang them up at the back register. One of them looked familiar.
“Hello, Jason,” the man said, smiling broadly. It was Judge Shaw, who had visited me in my sickbed just a few days earlier. He shook my hand. “Glad to see you’re up and around, son. How’s that wound of yours healing up?”
I nodded. “Stitches come out Monday,” I rasped. “At least it’s stopped hurting.”
“Your voice any better?”
I shook my head, then added up his order and took his $10 bill and placed it in the register till. “Same. I sound awful. Not even Auto-Tune could save me.”
The judge raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry,” I said, clearing my throat as I counted out his change. “It’s kind of a music box they use back home to... sorta change people’s voices and make them sing better than they really can. But it’s hopeless.”
“There’s always hope,” he said, pocketing his change and taking his bag. “And don’t forget: I’m still very much obliged to you for helping get Faith out of that damned well in my backyard. You ever need a favor, you just have to ask.”
I thought for a moment. “As a matter of fact, Judge, there is something. How well do you know the bank manager across the street?”
Five minutes later, we were seated in the office of Boatmen’s Savings Bank. The manager, Mr. Bartholomew Dollarhyde, was a very thin bald man in his late 40s, with large grey mutton-chop sideburns and a raggedy beard. He peered at Olivia Thomas’ deposit records through his pince-nez glasses and frowned.
“This is most irregular, Hamilton,” he said nervously. “I accept your word that this young man is Jason Thomas, Olivia Thomas’ only living relative. But I’m reluctant to hand out such a large amount — on a Saturday evening, yet!”
“Tut-tut,” said Judge Shaw. “$800 is a trifling amount these days, Bartholomew. You do... have the cash in the vault, do you not?”
“Of course, of course. But it’ll take me a moment.” Dollarhyde got up to leave, then hesitated a moment. “You’re absolutely certain about this, Hamilton? We do have a reputable institution here.”
“Exactly why Aunt Olivia kept all her life’s savings here for 20 years,” I said.
Judge Shaw nodded his approval.
“Alright. One moment.”
We watched him dart out of his office, then lit a few lanterns in the outer office, and we heard the bank vault door open with a loud clank.
“There’s one more thing I need you to do, Judge,” I said. “It’s... kind of a legal matter.”
“Certainly,” he said. “While I’m a county Judge, I’m of course certified as an attorney by the state bar, and I still maintain a private law office two blocks from the courthouse. What do you need?”
“My Aunt Olivia’s property — the two thousand acres. I, uh... want to give it all to Mrs. Colt.”
Shaw’s eyebrows raised. “Assign the property rights to Sarah? Not Mr. Colt?”
I shook my head. “Definitely not. He’s an ass—... uh, he doesn’t deserve it. I figure if I leave it to Mrs. Colt in her name, she and her two sons are protected. And if anything happens to her, it goes to her sons — and then to charity. Not a dime to Seth Colt. As long as they’re alive, they could sell half of it and still have enough to live on for a year or two.”
He snorted. “That farm land’s worth a lot more’n that, son,” he said. “Current market rates? I’d say that land’s worth at least $10,000, even after taxes. Sarah will do very well — very well, indeed.”
Mr. Shaw cocked his head. “Now, technically, we haven’t yet had the court hearing giving you the title to that property.”
My heart sank. “Is that a problem?”
The judge made a casual gesture, then leaned forward. “Not for somebody who saved my daughter’s life,” he said in a low voice, then sat back up with a wry smile. “It’s just a formality, anyway. I give you my word, the land title deed will be done promptly by 9AM Monday morning.” He picked up a pen and a blank piece of paper from the banker’s desk. “Let me make out a quick form giving me temporary power of attorney. That will give me the right to transfer your property on this one occasion.”
When he finished, I dipped the pen in ink and signed the paper, then coughed a few times. “Thanks, Judge.”
We looked up as Dollarhyde quickly stepped back in, his face a little flush. “Alright,” he said, counting out two small stacks. “Seven hundred dollars in bills, and five twenty-dollar gold pieces. I hope that’ll do. That closes out your Aunt’s account. Sign here, and here.”
I did. As he sat at his desk, I thought for a moment about what Travis had said earlier. Destiny. Maybe I should prepare for a couple of different possible futures — one in 1864, and another one in case I ever get back to my own time. “There’s one more thing,” I said. “Could I open my own account?”
The banker rolled his eyes. “Right this very minute? What kind of account?”
“Savings. Something I can get to at anytime. Even many years from now.”
“Ah, you mean a trust,” said the Judge, turning to the banker. “Bartholomew, set up a trust fund account for this young man. Call it... The Jason Thomas Trust.” He turned to me. “That sound alright to you?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.” I slid back three of the bills on the banker’s desk. “Keep this $300 in my account for now. And I have a couple of conditions: I want to be able to wire money to and from that account if I need to. And I’ll need to be able to take all or part of the money out in person — or give it to anyone who has my signature and knows the code word. At any date — now or in the distant future.”
Both men’s mouths fell open in surprise.
“This is most irregular!” sputtered Mr. Dollarhyde. “‘Code word’? I mean, it’s not impossible, but it’s simply not done this way. Highly irregular.”
Judge Shaw leaned back in his chair, looking thoughtful. “I’m well-versed with the current financial laws of the great state of Missouri,” he said, stroking his chin, “and all this sounds perfectly legal to me. If the beneficiary of the estate can show Mr. Thomas’ signature, and knows the account number and the code word, he can do what he will with the account. Do I have that right?”
I nodded. “Yes. Exactly.”
Dollarhyde frowned. “Oh, very well. Sign this account card, and take this copy for yourself. I’ll make a note that the holder of the trust must know the words. And what are they?”
“It’s a phrase: ‘Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters.’”
The bank manager blanched. “What in tarnation does that mean?”
“Nothing,” I said, suppressing a laugh. “Just some random words nobody but me would ever know. But if someone knows the account number, the code words, and has my signature—”
“—yes, yes, they’re entitled to the account. I understand. Still, it’s... most irregular, as I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“But it’s legal. Even five years from now or ten years from now.”
“Hell, I reckon it’d still be good a hundred years from now,” chortled Judge Shaw. “Not that any of us would need it by then.”
Both men laughed.
I shrugged and managed a small smile. “Maybe my descendents will some day. You never know.”
§ § § § §
By 6PM I felt utterly exhausted, bouncing along Old Country Road in the store’s mule wagon back towards the Colt farm just beyond the outskirts of town. I’d managed to get a couple of pounds of ground sirloin from Jacob Morgan, the butcher two doors down from McBillin, just before closing. Call me a picky eater, but I preferred the idea of making my own faux Big Macs to the thought of eating roast rabbit. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of eating a cute, fuzzy creature — even with biscuits and gravy, the way Mrs. Colt served it.
About forty minutes later, I pulled the wagon up to the barn and glanced over at the dimly-lit house.
“That you, boy?” called an angry voice at the front door. “You’re damn near a good half hour late!”
“Coming, Mr. Colt!” I called.
On the ride back to the farm, I had reached the decision that this would be my last night in St. Louis. Despite my affection for Travis, I had no real life here. I had the strange feeling that destiny wanted to take me far away from St. Louis to points unknown. I knew from last week’s rains that getting back inside Marsen’s Cavern again and finding the time-travel doorway that would take me home was probably impossible, at least anytime soon.
“But Frank and Jesse James said the mud always washes away by Spring,” I mused out loud as I stepped off the wagon and fastened the mule’s reins to the fence post by the edge of the barn. “I could come back in five or six months and try again.”
Somehow, that felt right. At least I had a plan now, one that didn’t involve killing anybody. Maybe I could make enough money to sock some more away in the trust fund. And someday, I thought, Jason Thomas could get all the money... either in 1865, or 150 years later. What would 150 years of interest add up to? Sounded like winning the Lotto.
“’Bout dang time you got here,” said a voice to my left, as I trudged up onto the porch steps.
“Travis, you scared the living shit outta me,” I said, momentarily jumping. “Did you, uh... put back the you-know-what?”
The boy snapped his pocket watch shut. “Didn’t get a chance. I hid the rifle out in the barn for now.”
I knocked the mud off my boots against the side of the steps. “Okay. We can take care of it later.”
He stopped me by the door. “You alright?” he said warily. “You sound kinda funny.”
I turned away. Could he somehow know that I was planning something? “Sure I sound funny,” I said, controlling my voice as best I could. “Half my vocal chords are shot. I sound like a yodeling frog.”
He gave me an odd look. “C’mon. Dinner’s waitin’.”
§ § § § §
By 9:30PM, I yawned and made my excuses to the Colts. I made my way back to the barn, mentally running over my escape plan again. I was going to leave $100 for Travis with a note in his older brother’s secret cubbyhole up in the hayloft, which only he and I knew about. I desperately hoped Travis would understand that there was no place for me in the St. Louis of 1864, and all I was doing was just treading water by staying here. I’d also write another note for Mr. & Mrs. Colt, thanking them and explaining that I had left them all of Aunt Olivia’s property — I chuckled, thinking of the rage on Mr. Colt’s face once he found out I really signed the property over to his wife — and that if they sold half of it, they’d have more than enough money to expand their farm and hire a dozen more men to work the fields.
“Maybe that’s part of their destiny,” I said softly, as I opened the barn door. I’ve been here almost a solid month, I thought, but their lives can only change for the better from here on. A distant railroad engine roared its steam whistle in the distance; that’d be the last passenger train that ran until dawn. I shivered slightly and made a note to add an extra blanket before I went to sleep.
As I closed the door, I felt a pang. Travis would be very hurt, probably even feel betrayed. We were, after all, blood brothers. I stopped and examined the little scratch on my thumb and felt the scab. He’d get over it, I thought. Travis would be a lot more popular at school if he dressed better and was a little more upscale, even go to college someday. For all I knew, he was meant to grow up and have a family of his own. Or maybe even wind up with a guy. Who could tell in 1864? The words ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’ didn’t even exist. I bet he was really bi-curious, I thought with a grin. With a face that handsome and a body like that, he’d have no problem dating anybody he wanted back home in Seattle — straight, gay, or undecided.
Just as I crossed the barn and reached the ladder at the back that led up to the hayloft, Missie stirred and let out a mournful murmur. “C’mon, hold it down, willya?” I called over my shoulder. “You’ll get milked in 7 more hours. So just keep a lid on it.” The last thing I needed was a noisy cow interrupting my sleep. But I wasn’t planning on sleeping long. The first train out of St. Louis was at 5:30AM — I knew from an early conversation with Rufus that the passenger trains ran every half hour — and I figured I’d just get on board and keep going until the tracks stopped. From there on, my itinerary was wide open.
I didn’t have much to pack; I still wore my Swatch Revitalize wristwatch and had my pocket knife in my pocket. I lit the lantern with my Bic butane lighter. From the hayloft shelf, I grabbed my worldly possessions and threw them into my backpack: my broken iPod, my cell phone, my Maglite, a small folding shovel and a pickaxe from the cave, my pocket notebook, two ballpoint pens (only one of which worked), and a pair of Rayban sunglasses. I still had enough room for two shirts and an extra pair of pants, and I’d wear my fleece-lined jacket and my boots. Anything else I needed I could buy en route with the $400 cash I had. At the last minute, I added the locket that held the photograph of my dearly departed Aunt Olivia, along with a pocket edition of David Copperfield. Even if I never finished Twitly’s classes, I figured having something to read on the train would help pass the time.
“Hey!” called a familiar voice from below.
Shit. I shoved my fully-loaded backpack out of the way, behind a bale of hay. “Up here,” I called over the railing.
Travis’ head popped up at the top of the ladder. “So, ya wanna...” he said shyly, nodding towards the mass of quilts in the back corner of the hayloft. “You know.”
I grinned. “Wrassle?”
He nodded shyly, then leaned forward.
I took a quick whiff in his general direction and my nose wrinkled. “Christ, Travis! You could knock a buzzard off a shit wagon!”
He shrugged. “Whatcha expect? Daffodils? I was traipsin’ through the woods this mornin’, stoppin’ you from a dangfool murder, then fertilizin’ out in the fields with Lem and Colt for ten solid hours.”
“Wash up first,” I said, indicating the wooden bucket down below. “If my tongue is going anywhere below the beltline, that area had better be clean.”
“T’ain’t no guarantees,” Travis warned.
“We’ll see about your taint later,” I retorted.
“Ya drive a hard bargain,” he said, quickly stepping down the ladder. “I’ll be right back.”
Travis quickly shed his boots, overalls, and shirt, then stood below, completely naked, his muscular chest and ripped arms illuminated by the kerosene lanterns. He braced himself, then grabbed the water bucket and doused his head. He looked incredible.
“Don’t forget to use soap!” I called, tossing him the shampoo bottle.
He caught it and made a face. “That’s for girls,” he snarled.
“As opposed to pigs!” I retorted with a laugh. “C’mon — lather up and I’ll come down and get you a refill to rinse off.”
I half-stepped/half-slid down the ladder. Travis turned away bashfully so all I could see was his powerful back and broad shoulders, separated by a line that deeply etched down his spine and into his muscular buttocks, which glistened with water and suds. That’s a million-dollar ass if I ever saw one, I said, feeling an instant throb in my groin. I had been so traumatized by my throat injury last weekend, and then so consumed with wanting to kill John Truman, sex had been the last thing on my mind over the last few days. But I was ready to go now.
“I’ll get some water,” I said hoarsely, my voice shaking a little with unbridled lust. I ran with the bucket out to the dusty path next to the house and quickly maneuvered the well pump, filling the bucket to the brim, then sloshed it back to the barn and slammed the door behind me, my heart racing.
“Hold still,” I said as I walked over, my hands shaking slightly at the sight of Travis’ magnificent body. For a kid who was physically just three months older than me, he looked like he could qualify for the Olympic gymnast team. And his face still took my breath away: piercing blue eyes, almost-feminine long blond eyelashes, but a strong jaw, high cheekbones, and not a single blemish anywhere, like a world-class model. Drop-dead gorgeous by any standard.
“Ya gonna pour or not?” he said, his teeth chattering slightly. “C’mon! I got suds in my eyes, and I’m damn near freezin’!”
“Sorry.” I rinsed him off, letting the water slowly cascade down to the hay-covered barn floor. “Turn around.” He did and I massaged his back and ass, brushing away the suds, my hand slipping slightly on the soap-moistened skin. I noticed a small mole on his right cheek.
“Hey,” I said with a grin, giving his buttock a small squeeze. “I finally found a flaw!”
“What?” he said, turning.
I put my hand behind his neck as he turned around. “I always thought you were the most perfect guy I ever saw, Travis,” I said in a low voice. “You’re beautiful. But you have a little mole on your ass. Glad to know you’re only 99.9% perfect.”
The boy grinned. “I ain’t perfect. Look: my dick still bends to the right.”
I looked down and saw that he was right. He was hard as a rock and breathing a little heavily.
“C’mon up to my place,” I said, nodding towards the ladder. “And be careful you don’t bang your dick on the way up.”
We quickly made our way up to the hayloft and tumbled together onto my makeshift bed, laughing. Mrs. Colt had supplied me with three layers of hand-made quilts and a sheet, plus a thick blanket on top. I wouldn’t say it was the most comfortable bed I’d ever had, but it was warm enough at night.
I nuzzled his neck, brushed his long, wet blond bangs out of his eyes, then reached my left hand down below his waist, and he let out a soft moan. His skin was slightly moist but now smelled terrific. “Hey,” I whispered, as I pulled off my clothes. “As bad as things have been for me this past week... you’re the one good thing I have left. Thanks for that.”
Travis looked up and smiled shyly, then he kissed me. Our breathing grew rapidly as our hands explored each other’s bodies. He held our cocks together and began to rub.
“No,” I said hoarsely, feeling an unexpected surge. “I’m right on the edge already. Let me...”
“Uh-uh,” he interrupted. “I wanna do you first.”
He kissed me again, briefly slipping his tongue into my mouth, and I moaned. He gently shoved me down on my back, then moved down towards my groin.
“It’s even bigger up close,” he said, playing with my groin, waggling my erection back and forth.
“Just shut up and suck,” I muttered.
He did as I asked and I fell back in a near delirium. It didn’t take long. In less than thirty seconds, my hips began bucking and I spasmed over and over again. Travis choked, then spat, then continued to pump my dick manually with his right hand. I felt warm liquid spatter across my abdomen and chest as he milked out the last few drops.
“GOD!” I cried, my chest heaving. “St-stop... stop! That was...” I was at a loss for words.
He fell beside me and put his arm across my chest and gave me a quick kiss. I tasted a little salty residue on his lips. He nestled his still-damp head onto my shoulder.
“This stuff we do together,” Travis said in a low voice. “It’s... it’s good. But I like this part best of all. Jes’ layin’ here and havin’ somebody to hold on to.”
He reached over and began to idly play with the two or three hairs growing out of my right nipple. “My brother Billy James... he had a little more hair ’n this on his chest,” he said. “He was barely 18.”
My nipples began to harden with the attention, and despite my recent orgasm, I felt my groin begin to swell again. I turned towards him and kissed him passionately, and he moaned.
“You know about 69?” I asked, a little breathlessly.
“It’s more than a number. Trust me.”
Ten minutes later, he fell back, completely spent, his powerful chest heaving. “My lord,” he said, wiping off his mouth and gasping for breath. “I ain’t never done that before.”
“Add that to your list,” I said, using the blanket to wipe off a few stray splatters. It was rare for me to go twice in a twenty-minute period. One of the benefits of being 15 and horny, I thought with a grin. Quick recharge. “I just hope the neighbors didn’t hear us. You were pretty loud.”
We snuggled under the blankets for a few minutes and I dimmed the lantern. “Hey,” I said softly. “I owe you a lot for stopping me from... well, from making an incredibly stupid mistake today.” I stroked the inside of his muscular arm, letting my fingers trace the vein on his thick bicep, leading up to his broad shoulder.
Travis smiled. “Least I could do, for all you done for me.”
I let out a long sigh of relief. “That was the absolute worst thing I ever did in my life... or almost did.”
“But you didn’t do it.”
“No. Thanks to you.” I paused and thought for a moment. “What’s the worst thing you ever did?”
Travis looked up at the barn roof. “I ain’t never killed nobody — though I’ve sure thought about it. But I think the worst thing I done was with a tortoise, back when I was little.”
“Yeah, sorta. Me ‘n Billy James were out in the woods, spring of ’58. We split up, and ’bout an hour later I found me a tortoise.”
“What’s the difference between a turtle and a tortoise?”
He laughed. “You city boys! Turtle lives in water; tortoise lives on land. Don’t they teach you nothin’ back in Seattle?”
“C’mon, what happened?” I asked, a little irritated.
“Alright, so there was this legend ’round here ’bout the biggest tortoise in the woods. They called him ‘King George.’”
“Ah,” I said. “Probably goes back to the War of 1812.”
“Mebbe, I dunno. ’Afore my time. Nobody knew how long he’d been around — maybe 50 years, maybe 60. Schoolteachers told us they kin live more ’n a hundred years! My daddy told me King George had even been there when he was growin’ up, and his father, too. Anyway, I was walkin’ in the pines out near Miller’s farm, takin’ a path to where I thought Billy was waitin’... and then I saw it. Why, my eyes plumb popped outta my head! Dang thing was at least three, maybe four feet across... must’ve weighed a hunnert pounds! My hand to God!”
I let out a low whistle. “That’s a big turtle.”
“Tortoise,” he corrected. “Anyway, I always heard tell that if you turn a tortoise over, they can’t turn back. I always thought that was just an old wives’ tale — I was barely 9, ya understand — so I snuck behind it, grabbed the shell, and managed to tip it over on its back!”
“What’d it do?”
“It lay there, snappin’ and a-hissin’, flailin’ its feet, rockin’ back and forth, tryin’ its very best to flip back over and bite me. But all it could manage was kinda spinnin’ ’round a little bit. Totally pow’rless.”
I leaned up on my elbow. “So what happened?”
“Well, I watched it for a few minutes, an’ I realized they was right: tortoises can’t turn over by themselves! So I did my best to turn it back, but it kept hissin’ and tryin’ to bite me. The more I tried to help, the angrier it got. And it started goin’ into conniptions, like it was goin’ totally mad.”
“Jesus, Travis. What’d you do?”
The handsome boy’s face sank. “I ran and found Billy James. Took me a good twenty minutes, but I found him. Billy wasn’t happy with me — said it was bad luck to hurt a tortoise this old. We rushed back to the clearin’, and...”
“King George was dead,” Travis said in a low voice. “Poor thing had been vomitin’ up yellow stuff... it was just awful. We turned it right side up straightaway, but it didn’t help. Head was stickin’ out his shell, tongue lollin’, legs were still. Stone-cold dead.” He turned away.
I sighed. “Well... it was just a dumb animal.”
“Tortoise ain’t no animal — it’s a reptile. Twitly taught us that. And I had no right ta kill it.”
“I felt right badly for what I did,” he continued. “Billy James kicked me in the ass, told me I was worthless and ign’rant for killin’ a dumb, defenseless thing like that. Wouldn’t speak a word to me for a week.” Travis was on the verge of tears.
An uncomfortable silence passed.
“Hey, look,” I said, touching his arm. “We all make mistakes. I would’ve made the biggest mistake of my life this morning if it hadn’t been for you.” I gave him a soft kiss. “Thanks for that.”
He nodded, then sat up and turned in the direction of the farmhouse.
“You gotta go back?” I asked.
“Yeah. We got church in the mornin’, then we gotta bring in some feed from town for the herd on the lower 40 ’round noon. Colt’ll tan both our hides if you and me don’t come along.”
I let out a long sigh, knowing that by the time they woke up and realized I was gone, I’d already be halfway to Arizona or Nevada. It wouldn’t be for another six or seven months before a newspaper editorial told Americans “go West, young man!” after the war. But I was always a little ahead of my time.
Travis stood up and stretched and yawned, his incredible body bathed in pale amber light. I was going to miss touching him, feeling the warmth of his skin, the tight ripples of his muscles, his shaggy blond hair... I looked away as he scrambled over the edge of the hayloft railing, still naked, and stepped down the ladder onto the barn floor, then tip-toed through the hay and dirt over to his overalls.
“Wait!” I called. I yanked up my underwear, then slid down the rungs to join him, just as he was buttoning up his shirt.
“Huh?” he asked.
I pulled him towards me and hugged him tightly. “I just... I just wanted to say goodnight.”
He flashed a toothy grin, then gave me a quick kiss. “Ain’t no need. I’ll see ya in less’n eight hours at breakfast.”
“Right,” I said, a little guiltily. “Yeah. Alright.”
Travis slipped on his boots, then pulled on his coat and grabbed the Henry rifle, which we had stashed just inside the front door.
The night air felt a lot colder outside my bed, especially without another young body to keep me warm. I shivered as I watched him start to walk away.
“One more thing!” I called.
Travis stopped at the barn door, about to close it, and turned as I jogged up to him.
“Thanks again,” I said, my voice hoarser than usual. I fought to keep the tears from my eyes, trying to remember an acting exercises we’d done in drama class back home in January. “I mean... for everything you’ve done for me here in St. Louis.”
He smiled. “Like I said before — I know you, Jason. You never woulda pulled that trigger. Even if I hadn’t come along. Ain’t got it in ya.”
I shivered in the evening chill. “We’ll never know. But it’s destiny, right?”
A voice yelled out from the distance. “Where you at, boy?”
“I gotta git,” he said hurriedly. “G’night.”
“G’night, Travis,” I said, as he closed the door. “And goodbye,” I added in a much lower voice, as I latched the door with a click.
§ § § § §
I couldn’t take off immediately. Hanging out at the downtown St. Louis train station for five hours wouldn’t exactly be my idea of a fun evening, though they did at least have an indoor waiting area that was probably heated. I decided to first take a nap here in the barn, setting my wristwatch to beep promptly at 4:15AM. That’d give me a solid hour to leave, drop off the wagon back at McBillin’s general store, then walk the ten blocks down 4th Street to the central station downtown. With luck, I’d be on the train half an hour before any of the Colts even woke up.
I tossed and turned. What little sleep I had over the next few hours was filled with unsettling dreams: part me of still wished I had killed John Truman, and I saw in graphic slow-motion what it would’ve been like to shoot him in the head, his lifeless body lying cold and still on the ground, unmoving. But you ain’t no killer, Travis’ voice reminded me. I know you.
My eyes momentarily filled with tears. Was it worth leaving? I mulled over all my options, and no matter how I sliced it, there was nothing here in St. Louis worth staying for except for Travis. But I was overwhelmed by a feeling that tonight was the night: I had to leave. And I couldn’t be certain that if I saw Truman again, I wouldn’t start thinking about killing him. Plus, no matter how sympathetic Twitly seemed, I couldn’t stand being treated like a pathetic victim by the other kids at school. No, it made more sense to take my chances elsewhere.
Freedom was what I needed. But in six months, I’d come back to Missouri in the spring, try to keep out of sight, and find my way back inside Marsden’s Cavern. Maybe once I was able to find the mysterious blue light again, I’d be instantly transported back into my time, right where I left off... or maybe in 1971... or maybe in the distant future. But anything would be better than the Shitville, Missouri of 1864.
My wrist alarm began beeping, and one of the cows stirred. Damn. It was time.
I arose and turned up the kerosene lantern by my bedside, then retrieved my backpack and checked it again. Everything was there. I pulled on my clothes, wearing two shirts and my woolen coat to stave off the cold; my guess was it was below forty degrees tonight. Travis had mentioned at dinner that the first snows were due in another two or three weeks.
I slipped on my socks and boots, then gave a last look around what had been my primitive 1864 bedroom for the last month. On impulse, I took an edge of the quilt in my hand and inhaled. Travis’ smell. I was going to miss that.
I brushed my hair, then tossed the brush and the mirror in my backpack, zipped it up, and stepped over the hayloft guardrail. One of the cows on the right — I was never sure of all of their names, Melissa or Metilda — stared at me, chewing her cud. I walked over and petted her. “I’m not gonna miss your delightful fragrance,” I said, glancing at the green lumps in the hay on the corral floor. “But it’s been fun.” She seemed grateful for the attention. “Stay away from the barbecue if you can.”
I turned down the kerosene lamps, made my way over to the barn door and clanked the wooden catch up, then slowly pushed it open. The coast looked clear. The half-moon was misty and partly obscured by clouds, like a scene right out of True Blood. A glance to my left told me that Dandy was asleep at the wagon. How mules and horses slept standing up, I’ll never know, I mused.
“Hey,” I whispered, brushing the mule’s forehead with my hand. “We gotta go. Head ’em up and move ’em out.”
The mule let out one small bray, unhappy at being disturbed.
“Shut up, dumbass!” I muttered, sliding my backpack behind the wagon seat. “No offense. Here.” I found some sugar cubes Rufus had stashed in a leather pouch at the driver’s position, put a few in my palm and fed them to him. That quieted him down in seconds.
“Now or never,” I said. I hopped up on the seat and reached down to release the friction brake.
“Now just where d’ya think you’re headed?” said a low voice, followed by a loud metallic click.
I turned and saw Mr. Colt walking towards me, dressed in his long underwear, pointing a rifle at me.
Shit. “I... I have some early-morning errands to run,” I said, coughing a little in the cold night air. “Sir.”
He crept closer and glanced in the back. “Looks like ya got a mind ta leave us. You get on back to the barn, boy.”
“No,” I said, glaring at him. “I’m outta here.”
“We still got a ’greement, you ’n me,” the man said, spitting off to the side. “Little matter of that 2000 acres. We ain’t quite settled on that.”
“You mean Mrs. Colt’s land,” I blurted out. “I signed over the documents last night. She owns Aunt Olivia’s property now. All of it.”
Colt’s mouth dropped open in surprise. He pointed the rifle at my head. “Then maybe I got no reason lettin’ ya live. Get inside the barn.”
My hands shook. This was definitely not part of the plan. I instantly regretted telling Colt the truth.
I stepped down from the wagon and patted Dandy, who brayed again and nuzzled my arm, apparently in the mood for more sugar.
“What exactly do you plan on doing with me?” I said, as the man marched me back to the barn.
“I’ll haveta think about that,” he said, as he opened the door. “Keep your hands up.”
“Jesus,” I said. “What is this, High Noon? Do I look like I’m carrying a weapon?”
Colt nudged the rifle barrel into my back. “Keep those feet movin’ or I’ll blow your goddam head clean off — right here, right now!”
As we entered the barn, I watched as he turned up two of the kerosene lanterns. Our shadows danced and flickered on the rough wood walls. He pushed me towards the far right side of the corral, and I carefully avoided a pitchfork that leaned on the wall about five feet from a supporting post.
“Don’t ya get no ideas,” he said. “Keep them arms up.”
“You asshole,” I snapped. “I’ve got nothing I can give you! I told you: your wife’s name is on the deed now. You can do what you want with it. Judge Shaw says it’s worth ten grand! Sell half of it, and you’ve got enough money to live on for years! Hire some farmhands, buy more livestock, put in a backyard pool... do whatever you want. Send Travis and Lem to school!”
“They already got school.”
“No, I mean college. Make something with their lives. They could be a lot more than just farmers.”
He slammed the side of the rifle barrel into my head, and I saw a flash of a dozen tiny lights go off in my eyes. I fell to my knees, woozily holding my head and sucking in my breath with the pain.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with farmers,” he snarled. “My oldest boy thought he was better, too. Didn’t get him far.”
I shook my head, still partially stunned. “You mean Billy James? But he went off to war, right?”
He spat and laughed, a low cruel laugh without any humor. “Rottin’ in the ground is more like it.”
I felt the right side of my head, where a small lump was growing. “Yeah,” I said, my mind racing as I tried to figure out a strategy to get around this psycho. “Travis told me that Billy probably died in the war. Battle of Cold Harbor.”
Colt took a step forward and leaned down. “That’s what Travis thinks.” He crept closer and half-whispered: “But you’re right on top of him.”
I looked down. I’d jostled some of the hay on the floor by the barn wall, and saw that the dirt on this side was a lighter brown color than the area surrounding it. But that would mean...
“Wait, hold up. You’re saying he’s... he’s buried right here?” I gestured towards the ground in front of me.
The man smiled, showing his yellowed teeth, an incisor missing on the lower right corner. “That’s right. And you’re gonna be joinin’ him real soon.”
My insides turned to ice. “They’ll hear you inside the house if you shoot me,” I said, my eyes darting around to see if I could grab a weapon. Shit — the pitchfork was too far away. “I know how loud that gun is.”
“Why, I reckon I could just say I heard a noise and thought some varmint was out in the barn tryin’ to rob us. Had us some ’coons ’n coyotes out here on occasion, tryin’ ta chew up our milk cows.”
My eyes narrowed. “Sounds like you’ve thought this all out pretty clearly.”
Colt shrugged. “Been plannin’ this since the day after you ’rived. Ya just sped up my timetable, is all.”
A moment of silence passed. “So now what?”
Still holding the rifle on me, he walked over to a batch of tools in a barrel and pulled out a shovel and threw it on the ground.
“Start diggin’. Right there.”
“You’re gonna bury me alive? Boy, you are a sick bastard.”
“Shut up!” he barked. “More diggin’, and less talkin’.”
Using the shovel as leverage, I staggered up to my feet, swaying dizzily. This was not a good day, I thought. I began shoveling, flinging the dirt to the side.
“You won’t get away with this,” I said in a low voice. “Travis’ll stop you.”
“Travis ain’t here. That little shit knows what’s good fer him. He ain’t yer concern. Keep diggin’.”
Fifteen exhausting minutes later, I’d managed to dig a shallow hole about three feet deep and six feet long. Despite the cold evening air, my back was sticky with sweat, partly from fear, partly from exertion, and also because I was still wearing two shirts and a thick coat. From outside the barn, I heard Dandy bray several times, probably anxious to leave. Not as anxious as I was, I thought glumly.
My shovel hit something. I looked down and scraped off the dirt. It was part of a human skull.
“Say hello to Billy James,” Colt said with a sickly grin. “Keep ya company over the next couple hundred years!”
“Jesus,” I said, absolutely stunned. “You weren’t just trying to scare me!”
“Now, why in tarnation would I try ta do that?” His eyes had a mad sparkle to them, and his scraggly salt-and-pepper beard gave him an uncanny resemblance to Charlie Manson.
“Gee, I dunno...” I said. “Maybe because you’re an serial killer asshole?”
“You shut your damn fool mouth!” he snarled. “Turn around.”
“What’re you gonna do, you pervert?” I said.
He slammed me again with the rifle barrel, only this time I didn’t go down. I turned to the left, shook my head to clear it, then looked him right in the eye. “You fucking coward! You killed your own son? And now me? For what reason?”
“You ask a lotta questions, Jason,” he said calmly. “Ya always did have a hand full of ‘gimme’ and a mouth full o’ ‘much obliged.’”
“Spare me the hick talk and just get to the point,” I said, sticking the shovel into the dirt.
Colt smiled grimly. “Billy James got some foolish idea he was gonna leave the farm. Him and me... we had ourselves an understandin’.”
I was confused. “What? He didn’t have any property.”
“Naw,” the man said. “But he gave me what I wanted. Man’s got needs.”
An uncomfortable silence passed, and my eyes widened. “You mean... you had sex with him?”
He spat. “Ain’t no sex. I just had my way with his backside, is all. My wife... Sarah’s a good woman, but after she done miscarried back in ’61, she ain’t been much for wifely duties.”
“So you fucked your adopted son up the ass?” I said in a low voice, completely stunned.
Colt shrugged. “Like I said... a man’s got needs, and a boy’s gotta do what his father tells him. When I found out he was gonna leave and done enlist in tha Army... well, you see how far he got,” he said, pointing towards the skull in the grave.
“But the letters...”
“Just one letter,” he corrected. “I sent it myself. I knew his handwritin’, and that was the only way Travis would stop askin’ his damn fool questions.”
“Wait,” I said, as a terrible realization began to dawn on me. “That means... you and Travis...”
“You give that no never-mind. What’s between me and him ain’t none o’ yer concern. Besides,” he said in a menacing voice, “he’s been spendin’ some time out here in the barn with you lately, last few weeks. I do b’lieve yer just as guilty of enjoyin’ the pleasures of the flesh as any young man. I ’spect he’s learned a thing or two.”
My mouth dropped open. Fuck, I thought. Colt had heard us out here in the barn, after all.
“That isn’t the same thing at all,” I protested. “We...”
“Enough of this dilly-dallyin’,” he interrupted. “For the last time — turn around.”
I looked down at the skull, then looked back up at the gun and his face, my mind racing. Now I understand how Travis’ panicked turtle in the woods might have felt, I thought. But I’ll be damned if I let this man flip me over in my shell and watch me die.
“Look, Mr. Colt,” I said, speaking very quickly. “I’ve got $500 in cash — four hundred in bills, plus five $20 gold pieces. Cash. I’ll give it all to you, if you just let me go. Nobody has to know.”
I knew I still had another $300 left in the bank, which would be my emergency fund while I was on the road. But if this situation didn’t qualify as an emergency, I dunno what did.
“That so? Show me. Slowly!”
I lowered my left arm and reached into my pants pocket, then pulled out the five gold pieces and laid them in my hand. “Here’s the gold,” I said, letting the reflections dance cross his face.
“That’s good, that’s good,” he said. “Just toss ’em right in front of me. And now the bills. Slowly.”
“I’ve... I’ve hidden the rest,” I said, my mind racing. If I could just get outside, I thought, I might be able to make a run for it.
“Quit stallin’, boy!”
“Wait a minute,” I said, still speaking quickly. “Hold on. How do I know you won’t still kill me?”
He smiled again. “Why, I could give ya my word.”
“And if I refuse?”
Colt pressed the rifle barrel right up against my forehead. “Then I got a bigger mess to clean up in the barn.”
Not a lot of options, I thought, my heart suddenly sounding louder in my chest. I began to get a little giddy at the thought of my gravestone: Jason Zachary Thomas... 1998-1864. I began to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” he snarled.
“They’ll never be able to explain that at the funeral parlor,” I said, starting to shake with hysterics at the insanity of it all. “Even if it’s true!”
“THE MONEY!” he bellowed. “ALL OF IT! NOW!”
“Don’t do it, Jason!” called Travis at the front of the barn.
Colt turned his head. In a flash, I grabbed the shovel and flipped up a full load of dirt right into the man’s face. The rifle went off over my head with a loud bang, the bullet ricocheting off the top of a nearby lantern. It hit the floor and the wall instantly exploded in flames. The cows began mooing very loudly.
“WHAT’RE YA THINK YER DOIN’?” the man roared, clawing his eyes as he fell to his knees. “I’LL KILL YA BOTH!”
The entire right side of the barn caught fire. The cows began to scream, scurrying over to the opposite side of the pen. The flames leapt over to the underside of the hayloft, which blazed into light as the dry grass ignited.
“NOT TONIGHT, YOU WON’T!” Travis screamed, as he seized the pitchfork and heaved it as hard as he could into Colt’s back. The man screamed and fell forward.
“Goddamn, Travis!” I yelled.
The entire hayloft erupted into an firestorm, almost knocking us back with the heat. Colt tried to get up, then fell back on his face, flailing in the dirt. His hand was right next to the open grave.
“Your brother,” I yelled, grabbing Travis as I coughed and choked from the smoke, trying to raise my injured voice over the screams and mooing from the cows. I gestured towards the open grave. “It’s him — Billy James... that’s his body down there! Colt murdered him!”
Travis’s face turned white. With a roar, he picked up the handle, kicked the man’s body over, then rammed the pitchfork deep into his chest with all his might. Colt screamed and kicked his legs, but Travis shoved the prongs in all the way up to the hilt, impaling him tightly to the floor. Colt writhed like an animal caught in a savage trap.
“GET OUTTA HERE!” Travis yelled, slapping open the livestock pen and stepping back as the three cows raced outside. I grabbed my backpack and the gold coins on the ground. Colt caught my wrist for a second, but I kicked his hand out of the way and stumbled away, coughing uncontrollably.
At that moment, the hayloft began to collapse and we sprinted out the front door. Acrid grey smoke was everywhere. Within seconds, the flames had spread out to the barn’s sides and roof, quickly turning into a raging inferno.
We ran over to the wagon, Dandy braying frantically with all the noise, smoke, and commotion. I quickly unhitched the brake and walked him and the wagon towards the side of the farmhouse, a good hundred feet away from the barn. The fire had turned from yellow-gold to white now, and I heard a loud crash as the back side of the wooden frame collapsed inward. I stared into the barn’s entrance: it was like looking right into the center of hell.
“You was gonna leave,” Travis said, catching his breath. “Leave me! After everythin’ we done!”
“God, Travis, I’m sorry,” I said, still coughing. “I don’t know what I wanted! All I know is, I just couldn’t stay here anymore. Colt is a total asshole...”
A large section of the front wall collapsed, and the flames shot up to the skies, becoming a conflagration.
“...okay,” I continued, “make that was
an asshole. And a murderer.” I looked into Travis’ eyes. “Is it true? What he
Travis’ lower lip began to tremble. “He was... he was usin’ me... usin’ me like a woman. Like those two boys out by the rocks we saw comin’ home from school a coupla weeks ago.” He turned away and began to sob.
“Hey,” I said. “That’s not what you and I had. What Colt did was rape. But at least your mom...”
He turned back to me, his face red and scowling. “She knew! ‘Better you than me,’ was all she said. And if’n I didn’t... didn’t do what he wanted, he’d do it ta Lem.”
“Jesus Fucking Christ,” I said, overwhelmed by shock and horror. I had to lean against the wagon for support. “You’ve got an entire Jerry Springer show right here on the farm!” I said, incredulously. “A total horror show! Un-fucking-believable.”
A sudden scream to our right caused us to turn our heads. Mrs. Colt ran towards us, her dressing gown fluttering behind as she darted through the smoke. “Oh, my Lord, my God, my Lord!” she cried, over and over again, her hands fluttering. “My gracious! Where’s Lem? Where’s Seth? Are you boys all right?”
I glared at her. “Colt is dead. He tried to kill me.”
She let out a shriek. “NO!”
“Listen, Ma,” Travis began. “I told you from the beginnin’ that Colt was no good. He killed Billy James.”
“That can’t be!” she wailed. She took a tentative step towards the barn, but the entrance way collapsed and a muffled explosion inside told me the center part of the barn had collapsed. The roof was on the verge. Travis and I held her back.
“It’s true,” I said. “I saw Billy’s body, what was left of it in the barn. Colt found out he was going to join the Army.”
Her face turned grim. “Billy James never should’ve tried to leave,” she said, her voice shaking only slightly. “I warned him. He had no right.”
“But Colt was... Colt was... doing it...”
“Mama didn’t care,” Travis said coldly. “Don’tcha see? She didn’t want nothin’ to do with Colt.”
“Colossians 3, verse 20,” she said in a low voice. “‘Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.’ That’s what it says.”
My mouth fell open. “I don’t think they had ass-raping in mind when they wrote that passage!”
She reached out and slapped me in the face, hard. “How dare you use such foul language to me!”
“Jesus, lady,” I said, rubbing my face. “Call it anything you want, but raping your kid can’t be legal, even in this God-forsaken time zone!”
Just behind us, the last wall of the barn keeled over, heaving into the ground with a low rumble and sending a shower of red sparks up in the air. Luckily, the barn was far enough away from the house that there was no chance the fire could spread, and there were no winds tonight. The pigs in the nearby pen squealed frantically, pressing up against the opposite fence railings in a desperate effort to avoid being turned into bacon.
“Get out!” she hissed. “You’ve both ruined my life, and you killed my husband!”
“He tried to kill me first!” I protested.
“Just get out!”
“But Mama...” Travis began.
“GET OUT!” she screamed. “You ain’t no son of mind! Go and burn in hellfire and damnation!” She began to sob as she turned and walked back to the house.
“Let’s go,” Travis said, as she disappeared from sight.
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. C’mon.”
We got in the wagon, and Dandy seemed to be extremely eager to get away from the farm, practically galloping away down the path at top speed. We reached the town in record time, pulled up the wagon in the alley behind the general store, and I used my key to get inside. At the back counter, I turned up a nearby lantern and wrote out a note to McBillin explaining that I’d decided to leave town, thanking him for the kindness he and his wife had shown me. They were holding my share of the store profits for safekeeping, almost $120; I told them in the note to donate it all to Rufus’ gospel church.
“Grab some clothes and a suitcase,” I said, pointing Travis towards the men’s jeans and shirts on the front left side of the store. “Your pajamas won’t exactly blend in on the train. I’ll leave McBillin $20 with the note.”
“That’s a lotta money for clothes,” he muttered.
“Grab a heavy coat, too,” I called. “Coats and jackets are hanging on aisle 2 just behind you.”
“Still feels like stealin’,” he muttered, slipping on a dark blue cloth coat, one of the more stylish ones, then jogged up to the counter.
“Naaaa,” I said, checking out the label. “This one’s on sale. Trust me, McBillin always makes a profit. We’ll let ’em keep the change.”
I glanced at the fitting mirror to the side and turned up a nearby lantern, then unbuttoned the top of my shirt.
“What’re you doin’?” Travis asked warily.
I pointed to my neck. “The stitches,” I said, flipping open my pocket knife. “I gotta remove them or else they’ll be embedded.”
Travis winced. “Ya sure you know what yer doin’? You ain’t exactly no doctor.”
“I watched M*A*S*H in reruns,” I muttered. I deftly snipped the ten stitches, then gingerly eased them out, one at a time. It stung a little, but there was almost no blood. Hmmm, I thought, a little relieved after checking the mirror when the last stitch was out. The scar isn’t half as bad as I thought. I grabbed a bottle of iodine from another shelf and dabbed it on, wincing at the slight sting.
“Just call me Hawkeye Pierce,” I muttered, buttoning up my shirt and slipping my coat back on, then grabbing a black felt hat from a display. “You ready?”
Travis nodded. In five minutes, we were walking down the sidewalk towards the central train station, our boots clunking noisily across the wooden planks. In the distance, we heard the steam engine hoot twice and I glanced at my watch, which read 5:17. Right on schedule, I thought.
“You sure you wanna go through with this?” I asked Travis as we picked up our pace.
He let out a sigh. “I got nothin’ here. I thought o’ takin’ off for a long time. Only reason I never done enlisted is ’cause o’ Lem.”
“You gonna miss him? It’s not too late for us to turn back.”
Travis shook his head. “Not with Ma still there. Maybe I’ll write to him later... tell him what really happened. Lem’ll be alright, now that Colt’s not around ta hurt him. Lem already shoots better ’n you.”
“That’s not hard to imagine.” I stopped on the sidewalk, the train station less than two blocks away. “But you’re okay with this — running away? Why didn’t you just leave the farm sooner?”
He sighed and looked at his feet. “Thought about it plenty o’ times. But I knew if I left, then Colt woulda started to... you know. To him.”
“Jesus,” I said, incredulous. “Fucking child molester. That explains the bruises.”
“And my busted-up nose,” he said. “First time Colt did it to me, he punched me hard in the face. Said if I didn’t just turn over and take it, he’d kill me. And I believed him.”
“But you knew about him and Billy James?”
Travis nodded. “We all pretended like it weren’t happenin’. Colt would just close the front bedroom door and they’d get real quiet-like. Lem would ask questions, but Mama just shushed him and made us stay in the back, in the kitchen. Boy like him is too young to know...” He started to choke.
“Hey,” I said, putting my arm around him. “Hey. It’s all over with now. Colt got what he deserved. And I left all Aunt Olivia’s farmland to your Mom.”
“To hell with her,” he said, spitting to the sidewalk. “Ma was just as bad, tellin’ me to shut up and mind my father. And he ain’t my father.”
“The sheriff’s going to want to know what happened,” I said, as we continued down the muddy street, thinking about the carnage we left behind on the Colt farm. “Especially when they find two dead bodies out in the barn wreckage.”
Travis shook his head. “She thinks she’s a respect’ble Christian woman. Better to just say that’s Colt’s body and my body.”
“Not if the CSI shows up — I mean, the sheriff. They might figure out that other body has been dead for six months.”
“Ma’s got money now,” Travis said, as we crossed the street and walked up the steps towards the train station’s main entrance, looming just ahead of us. “That’ll keep the sheriff and the town gossips quiet. Best for Ma if nobody asks any questions. The money’ll change her and Lem’s lives for the better.”
It was hard to argue with that logic.
“Shit,” I said, clapping my forehead at the sudden reminder. “I left you a letter and a hundred bucks back in Billy James’ secret compartment back at the barn!”
Travis shrugged. “It’s all up in smoke now. Billy’s gone, that money’s gone, and Colt’s gone. All things considered, I’d gladly pay ten times that to see that man burn in hell. I surely would.”
“Well, we still have almost $400,” I said, patting my wallet, as we got in the short line of customers waiting at the train station ticket window. “Less whatever it costs to go to...” I scanned the signs above our heads showing the list of Missouri-Pacific passenger trains leaving town in the next hour. “...Albuquerque. You ever been to New Mexico?”
He shook his head. “I ain’t never been anywhere but here.”
I took a step forward in line, but he squeezed my arm.
“You really woulda left me?” he said in a small voice. “Is that what ya meant by no guarantees?”
I looked down, then slowly shook my head. “I couldn’t pull the trigger to kill Truman yesterday,” I began. “And as far as leaving — well, knowing how I feel right now... I bet I would’ve gotten halfway into town, then given up and turned back around. No — I never could’ve left you behind, Travis.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I swear. By the moon and the stars.”
“Blood brothers. Brought together by fate.”
Ten minutes later, we stared out the window of the train as it built up to speed, the engine chugging along. All aboard Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express, I thought, my heart pounding with the thought of the unknown territory that lay ahead. The real-life steam train was a lot louder, dirtier, and much more bumpy than the ones in the movies. But not a bad deal for $37, I thought. The ticket vendor had warned us that some of the tracks were out for repairs because of the war, and that we’d have to take a Butterfield Overland stagecoach wagon for parts of the journey, but gave us instructions on how to make the transfers.
There was only one other passenger in our passenger car, and he was either drunk or half asleep, his hat over his eyes. We watched through the windows as the lights of the city of St. Louis began to dim behind us. The train was headed south, with brief stopovers in Arkansas and Texas, then points west.
“Hey, listen,” I said in a low voice, “I never did thank you for... you know, saving my life back in the barn.”
Travis’ eyes softened and he turned away. “Naw. I’m the one who should be thankin’ you. You saved my life. If ya hadn’t done what ya did — if ya hadn’t found out the truth — I never woulda had the courage to finally do it. I owe ya for that.”
I nodded. Maybe we both saved each other, I thought. Like it was always meant to happen.
We sat, momentarily lost in silence. “We changed fate,” I muttered, mulling over the potential disasters for changing the future.
“No we didn’t,” Travis said, still staring out the window. “I’m pos’tive Colt was gonna die. And I couldn’t’ve stayed on that farm one more day.”
“I hope you’re right,” I said. The risks of changing the past were terrible, I thought. I’d seen this go horribly wrong many times in movies... but those were just movies, and this was real life — my life. And now I’ve dragged Travis into this mess, I mused, with a gnawing feeling of regret. Even now, we might be causing little ripples that could have a tidal-wave effect on my future... our future. I resolved to be much more careful, especially in life and death issues that could have unpredictable consequences 150 years later.
We sat in silence, then the train momentarily clunked and rattled noisily as we crossed a bridge, metallic clacks chattering on either side of the train car. The fingers of the early morning sun were beginning to etch long yellow fingers in the crops and fields in the distance.
“You sure you’re ready for what’s out there?” I said, changing the subject, as we swayed slightly in our seats as the train tracks took a steep turn to the south.
“Yeah,” Travis replied, turning to face me. For the first time since the fire, he began to smile. “I reckon we’re goin’ to meet our destiny, whatever that is.” The morning sun hit the side of his face, edging his shaggy white-blond hair and giving him a luminous glow.
“Is it fate or is it destiny?” I asked, sitting a little closer and putting my arm across his shoulders. “I never could get those straight.”
“Fate’s what makes life happen. Destiny is where you’re meant to be.”
“Okay,” I said, grinning. “Then destiny it is.”
And our train rumbled southwest, into the darkness, towards an uncertain destiny a thousand miles away. Travis snuggled a little closer, and I let out a long, exhausted sigh. Whatever was going to happen would happen, and even if I wasn’t in a world I belonged in or understood, at least I had a friend by my side.
But Travis Finnigan and Jason Thomas
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