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The Tale of Trot and Dim Johnny

By Tom Sheehan

As all accidents are about to happen, or strange encounters take place, fate stands at the edge of the road waiting to announce itself, an unseen signpost, an unseen hitchhiker. Such was the plan when Banford J. Hibbs pushed his wheelchair out of the driveway and onto the sidewalk. Both his legs had been left on the rampant sands of a Pacific island half a century earlier. He did not see the boy with the white cane until he had almost knocked him down.

“I’m sorry, son. I didn’t see you,” Banford Hibbs said. In a gray shirt his arms bulged from wrist to shoulder, exhibiting long sieges at arduous labor. His eyes were clear, he was clean-shaven, an odd bump accented an otherwise long straight nose, and his hair was military-trim. The boy, not in any great contrast, was clean-faced, dark-haired, but wore dark glasses, as if hiding within himself.

“I didn’t see you either, mister,” the boy said, and the grin leaped across his face. “My name’s Dim Johnny. It’s not really that bad a name. Kids got used to it. Tells a story.” Bright teeth filled a mouth formed with full lips, and one would gather he spent little time frowning. The remnants of the smile lingered at the corners of his lips, the way smiles like to hang around pleasant people.

“Well, Dim Johnny, from my days in a rehab hospital, after losing my legs, all the guys started calling me Trot. It’s been Trot ever since. Trot locked up in a wheelchair. Trot do this and Trot do that, Trot never swung a baseball bat.”

The boy giggled. “That’s kind of like my name. Getting us to laugh a little bit at ourselves so we don’t spend the day sulking in a corner, like my grandfather used to say. He read a lot to me. I still hear him.”

“Do you like parades?” Trot looked up and down the street, through breaks in the small crowd gathered along the curbing.

“I don’t see too much in parades, but I like to listen, to everything.” He slanted his head as if it were an exclamation mark.

For the first time in all his parades, Trot heard the crowd and all its props: cap guns, whistles, whirling plastic bird’s wings, yells and exuberance of all kind and manner. He’d always seen a parade but had never heard a parade, not really heard it. That his ears were opened made his eyes open. “Someday you’ll be in a parade, Dim Johnny. I’d bet on that.”

Just the way fate hung at the edge of the roadway like the announced hitchhiker, so did prophecy, and the tingle was alive in Trot Hibbs’ phantom toes. Both feet, he said to himself.

“Hey, Trot,” hailed a voice from the crowd. “Just in time for the parade. They remember us today, you know, but the ranks’re getting thinner. There’s only us sergeants and chiefs of boats left now.”

Trot recognized the voice even before he saw the face, old Chief of Boats Snorkel Boatwright. “Hey, Snorkel, what brings you up from down under? They let all the water out of the tub?”

The boy’s laughter burst out of him again, tapping his cane on the ground, making more exclamation marks. “I know him,” he said. “He’s the guy at the gas station. Sometimes we stop there for gas.” The tip of his white cane came to rest against one of the Trot’s wheels. Trot guessed him to be about eleven or twelve years old. He had already decided that the dark glasses were not going to hide much about Dim Johnny.

“I used to see,” the boy said. “I remember what my mother looks like. She says I’m her savior ‘cause I keep her looks frozen in time. She’ll never get any older. Makes me feel good.” His head moved off at an angle as if posing, but Trot guessed he was keying in on some feature of his mother. “She has the biggest, softest, kindest eyes you can imagine. Like Oreos. That’s really what I see. But it’s a secret I’ll share with you. One I can’t tell her, that I can’t remember all of her face. I’m happy it’s the eyes. Big, soft, brown. She never has to know, does she?” There was affirmation heard if affirmation was ever said.

“Not on my account. What happened?” Trot said, staying in place with something remarkable happening to him, finding it difficult to do so. Unknown pleasant tremors were at deep core work.

“Nobody really knows. It started getting darker each day, a bit at a time. They took me to half a dozen doctors, but they couldn’t find out anything. Then one day,” he shrugged his shoulders, “it was all gone. At first it was dim, then dimmer, then nothing. Some kids began to call me Dim Johnny, like the game your pals pulled on you. But you guys were all hurt, weren’t you? You were a sergeant, huh? Gramp said he could run a war with sergeants. What about the generals?”

“You only need one of them, Johnny. The rest become errand boys. Gramp’s right. So are you. We were a hurting army, the bunch of us, but we were winners. Tell me, is your hearing now excellent or special? I’ve heard stories from some guys.” Trot had seen how Johnny’s head would turn according to introductions of a sound, a noise, a bit of music from a distant radio, a single trumpet warming up for the parade. He wondered about handling disparate sounds, unidentified sounds; how would they be classed or sorted, or even referenced.

“I can hear music in anything. I can tell a note of the scale from a hundred yards away. Lots of songs I know by just hearing a couple of notes together. Oh, they have to be kind of special. I have to get some help. I’m only a kid, you know.” He laughed all over again and it made Trot feel warmer inside, the core touched again.              There came a sudden balance in all of it, thought Trot, as Dim Johnny, too much of the spotlight on himself, said, “What do you do Trot?”  Enough of me it seemed to say, and said honestly with a righteous reserve. Manners it also said.

Trot Hibbs flicked a thumbnail against a spoke in a wheel.

“That’s an A Flat,” Dim Johnny said, adding, “if that’s a test note.” He laughed aloud and tapped his cane again on the cement walkway. It was just the way Trot used to do with a cue stick playing pool in the Old Rathole before the war. It was akin to applause or ovation. Johnny continued, “I wish I could make money with it. I’d really like to help my mother and father. He gets odd jobs now and then and he’s not really in the best shape. I guess worrying can do that to you. Gramp used to say that, too.”

“Well, I make things out of iron. I try to bring out objects I see in old metal pieces. Some people call it art. Some call it junk. But I love doing it. It’s special salvage.”

“Boy, I’d like to see some of it. Could we do that? I mean, I’d like to touch some of them, see what you’re saying to me, if you know what I mean. My hands can remember my grandfather’s face, how he used to read to me. He had big ears, a heavy chin, sometimes when he talked his jaw cracked. My dad doesn’t have time to read like that. He’s always worrying about something happening that never happens. Never once.”

“Sure, if you get the okay from your folks. I live there in that alley. All my stuff is there. You go in along the fence and a wall only two feet off the fence. The wall says my stuff is going to be all over the place. You have to be careful and stay against the edge of the building, against that wall. It’s an old garage I live in. Fixed up pretty good. Yell out my name.”

“Sure,” Dim Johnny said, “I’ll yell out, ‘Hey, Trot, what you got?’”

Banford J. Trot Hibbs, for the second or third time was warmed right down to his missing toes.

Sleep eventually came to Trot Hibbs that night, after the Memorial Day parade, after saying goodbye to the boy, after a long siege on Kwajalein sand was relived again. In that sense of silence, he thought about the boy’s good spirits.

Barely out of bed and dressed, near-burnt toast aroma climbing the air, coffee scent its companion, the sun a huge promise coming with a quick slant onto the kitchen table, he heard the yell. “Hey, Trot! What you got?”

Out the window he saw the boy, in a blue jacket, a bag in one hand, the white cane in the other. “Hey, Johnny,” Trot yelled. “Keep coming along the wall, open the first door you come to.”

The boy stood in Trot’s foyer, kitchen, workshop, home. “You burned the toast,” he said. “Your coffee’s like my father’s. Calls it camp coffee from when he went fishing with the guys. He doesn’t fish much any more. You got iron in here? You won’t believe me, but I can smell feathers. D’you just wake up?”

Pronouncements and observations of all kind were not very far from Dim Johnny, Trot had already decided. He swore his toes tingled again. “Come straight ahead. There’s a chair you can sit in. What’s in the bag?”

“My Mom said I had to bring a lunch. She talked to some people about you, swore you ain’t going to hurt me or anything crazy. She knows your cousin Sydney from the phone company. What you got, Trot?”

“You sit there, Johnny, and I’ll put some things in front of you.” Iron and steel sounds clinked in the air. A small measurable thud sounded on the table in front of Dim Johnny. “Tell me what you figure this piece to be, Johnny.”

“Ah, Trot, you don’t have to be careful with me. Everybody calls me Dim Johnny. Don’t worry about it, and I won’t call you Banford.” The giggle was authentic, and the toes tingled for sure.

“Just reach out and tell me,” Trot advised the boy. “A few sharp edges, but not knife-sharp. Just be careful. It’s iron and weighs about nine pounds.” At an aside he said, “About the weight of a Garand.”

“I know about Garands.” He pronounced the name of the weapon correctly. “My grandfather knew what they were. Told me about his.” Then Dim Johnny fondled the piece of iron sculpture. His fingers, like reaching for piano keys in an early lesson, touched the perimeters of the piece. A dozen times his hands, petting, coaxing, almost adjusting to shape, moved across the nine pounds of iron. At one point he snapped a finger against an elevated piece and the note ran around the room. He nodded his head and leaned back in the chair.

“That’s a bird in flight, a hawk with fingertip wings, a hunter. I’d call him Black Hunter. I can feel his head down, looking at the ground, eyes searching. Yeh, Black Hunter.”

Trot Hibbs’ toes were alive, his head swam, his heart leaped. All across the prairie or a mile-wide meadow he could see jackrabbits scattering, could see the shadow of wings patrolling against the sun, wings from another part of day, where daylight emptied itself into. “I couldn’t have named him better. From now on, that’s what he is, Black Hunter. Try this one.” He positioned another smaller piece of work in front of the boy.

Dim Johnny went at this one from the base upward, caressing a column, finding the core of something on top of the column, stroking the mass lightly. Behind dark glasses Trot thought he could see the boy squint his eyes. “This could be a lot of things, but I think it’s a bear in the middle of winter. Maybe a polar bear, but I don’t figure it’s white.” He tapped his fingers on the column. A new sound ran around the room.

Trot Hibbs suddenly realized he had never paid attention to sounds of his own material. Johnny tapped it again; it was musical. There was no way in his mind this was intended to be a bear, but the thought persisted. Maybe that’s why it was not so quickly received by people. He’d keep the polar bear in mind, but would not tell the boy. What was really happening to him was the recognition of a new level of achievement, of selection, of newness itself. And what was it with the happy toes, the phantom toes he had heard so much about over the years. Was all this boy work?

A third mass of metal thudded on the table. “That’s bigger than a Garand,” Johnny said. Again his fingers found the form, froze for a moment, moved on, all parts touched, caressed, known. Trot kept the minute titillation to himself. “I don’t know what it is, that’s for sure, but I’d call it Tomorrow. It promises so much.” He chuckled. “It’s kind of like a poem my grandfather told me once. I didn’t make it up. It’s been there.” But from its mass he brought out the sound of music by rubbing an edge. Trot thought it to be an organ at the low end of the scale.

Tomorrow is what we’ll call it from this day on.” Over his shoulder he looked at a pile of iron of sundry shapes, conditions. In his hands he felt each piece. The many times he had fondled them were countless, but the heft continued to be known in his hands. The iron fire engine, but a few inches long he had found as a boy, came back like an exposed negative. It was in the pile in the corner. If there was anything he wanted the boy to know, it was the iron fire engine, thick with rust undisturbed for years. It was like a found poem with him.

He rolled across the room, extracted a few pieces, and brought them to the table. “These are scrap pieces from my pile. What can we do with them? Do you have any ideas?” He pushed the pieces across the table to the boy. His head tilted, his ears cocked, the boy was hearing the metal in a near-silent state, the mere breath of the pieces sliding across the table.

Dim Johnny, mouth slightly open, tongue touching his top lip as if he were tasting sound, touched two pieces together. Trot had never heard that sound before, the tone, the notes coming as the boy touched them along the length of each piece, ringing them, tolling them. Musical notes were coming out of old iron he had banged together a hundred times without regard for sound. Two other pieces came into the boy’s hands. They too made a music Trot Hibbs had not heard before.

“What do we do with this stuff? You’re finding something I didn’t even know was there. But what can we do with it?”

“Well,” Johnny said, “some of the notes are softened by my hands. If you could make a small hole in each end or at the top of each piece, we could hang them by wire loops. Hands just dull the sound, make it too sloppy. I heard my mother talking about some kind of chimes she heard once. We could make chimes. If the sound is good, and I can tell if the sound is good, we can make some chimes. If you shake them against each other and we know what the sound is going to be, we can make music. We could hang them in people’s trees and let the wind play them.”

The partnership of Banford J. Trot Hibbs and Dim Johnny Hardcastle was formed. Trot worked the pieces, bending, cutting, welding, joining, thinning the note of one or another by whatever craft he could bring to bear on it. Oh, he polished them, too, and made them catch the sunlight as well as the ear, pretty pieces, rugged pieces, marvelous pieces. And day upon day he felt the tingle crawling about in his toes and the sands of Kwajalein falling further away from him more with each passing day. The half century that had hung on so long was letting go.

With his incredulous ear, Dim Johnny found the right notes in odd lots, or matched pieces so notes came out of their touching, notes of rare beauty and rare orchestration. Came out of them sounds spilling over Chautenauga Valley and across the river, so that children at school were often pulled from games hearkening to them.

The partnership sold hundreds of pieces to hundreds of people with the passing of five more Memorial Day parades until the morning Dim Johnny found Trot Hibbs still in his wheelchair from the night before.

A few days later the flag was hung part way up the pole at the center of town. Old Chief of Boats Snorkel Boatwright closed his station for the day when there was another minor and extra parade in town, and Dim Johnny rode down the street in Snorkel’s car with Trot Hibbs’ Silver Star hanging from the rear view mirror for all to see.

Johnny swore he could see the gold from the Silver Star, just as he was sure Trot Hibbs’ toes were still feeling their way through a new kind of grass. In his hands he clutched a rusted iron fire engine, about a half-pound of ferric beauty that had become his personal rubbing stone.

Some fifteen years later, from the same garage, Dim Johnny Hardcastle is still selling The Trot Hibbs’ Silver Star Mobiles, famous makers of music.

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Tom Sheehan has published 24 books, has multiple work in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield ReviewLa Joie Magazine, Literary OrphansIndiana Voices Journal, Frontier TalesWestern Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, EastlitRope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, Faith-Hope and Fiction, etc. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of the Net nominations (one winner). Swan River Daisy, a chapbook, was just released by KY Stories. His Amazon Author’s Page, Tom Sheehan — is on the Amazon site.

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Scene at Scott’s Mill

By Tom Sheehan

Old Scott’s Mill on the Saugus River, rebuilt in 1847 after a fire and a long-time employer of hard workers at wool and leather goods and lastly boot protection for soldiers in Viet Nam, had given off odd sounds since the day it closed down, a dozen years earlier in a new century. Now it gave off a sense of passage, spooky passage, which none of us three pals could measure or pinpoint its source.

All the way back to the last holiday we had saved a cache of fireworks, my pals, Sinagna, Injun Joe and Charlie B, each of us twelve years old within three days of each other. “Pals to the end,” we had said, squirreling away the fireworks in Sinagna’s Aunt Lil’s barn leaning from one century into another. Many times we were afraid those hidden prizes would explode in their secret hideaway, our want for noise and excitement so strong, at times like hunger tantrums. But we had saved them for a special occasion. “Promise made is promise kept,” Sinagna had said on Veterans’ Day, his voice hard as wire, though the tantrum pummelled in his gut.

So Sinagna and Injun Joe and Charlie B, and me coming late as usual, came together on the special night before the national holiday, and crept up on the backside of Scott’s Mill, closed tight as a fighter’s fist, sitting there beside the slow Saugus River. It was a mill as marked as time itself, whose existence seemed to transcend the town and its beginnings. Now and then it became a shell of nacre the way an early bronze moon could make it eerie and distant and out of this world. It was a piece of another time, another dimension, for none of us could begin to imagine how much workers’ sweat had seeped into the floors for parts of two centuries.

One box and two bags of choice explosives, stashed away for ninety slow-as-snails days, figured in our arms as something Fort Sumter or another historic battle site might have set free. Tonight there’d be a new war on the silence clasping the mill, on the eerie darkness that moonless nights allowed to cling to the mill, and on whatever lurked in it or around it.  We had no idea of what was in the mill.

Lighting our sticks of punk, we stood on the bank of the river and the smell coasted thickly in the night as if an old barn had been turned inside out. Once, earlier, Injun Joe had explained that his grandfather affirmed that punk was made from camel dung. Each of them inhaled the acrid and known and nostalgic smell as it fingered memories of past celebrations filled with “oohs,” and “ahs,” and “ohs.”

All our memories said time was eternal, spilled on a level coming to us and moving away from us, but tonight disruption was the game. Disruption and noise and affirmation of the minor manhood working its endless way down in our genes.

The Saugus River ran away at the foot of the huge red brick building, the calm waters swishing slowly against the cluttered rock dam site at the foot of the red brick building. Above us, ranging out of trees, darkness came plodding on, the near silence moving across our skins asking to be known. Sinagna’s Aunt Lil once had said, “Darkness comes on like a beggar man to close the end of day.”

“It’s only brick,” Sinagna said, his natural spirit bucking up his current assessment. His hand touched the side of the mill, its doors now closed for as long as we’d had been alive; a huge,  ghostly creature of a building, windows boarded up, doors frozen in place with huge spikes; eyes that could not see, mouths that could not speak. There was, however, something else in the touch of that stone, something mossy, something growing, something without a voice, but threatening us.

We had known forever that it was there.

Sinagna, as fearsome as any boy we knew, could feel the presence of something if only in the touch of the stone. Perhaps a creature, but not quite visible; it might not breathe, but it was there. Yet no one, none of our friends or neighbors had ever been hurt. It was what we had counted on, in our perilous argument.

“Yuh,” Charlie B said, feeling the fuzz on the back of his neck with a threat of electricity in it, “so how come they see a glow of flames every Fourth of July. At midnight. From the only window that’s not boarded up. The one way up in the peak out front. Tell me how that gets done. All the floors have been taken out. The whole place is nothing but a shell. So how come so many people have seen a red glow in that window way up there? Even my father said he saw it, expected the place was about to burn down.”

His twelve-year-old face was squeezed into his own questions, his mouth still pursed, his chin and that pursed mouth still asking for an explanation. The three of us were always blue-eyed; now, at this juncture, we were dark-eyed.

Sinagna bristled as only Sinagna could bristle, his jaw prominent, his eyes steely, his breath measured. “How should I know?” he said. “I ain’t been in there. I ain’t seen anybody go in or come out, ever. Maybe it’s like a locked-up Aurora Borealis, like it was caught in there the very first time it was caught. Something crazy, like that. Or a bum gets in there every year to play tricks on us. Like having his own routine. But we promised we’d light it up one way or another. And I’m all for getting inside somehow, anyhow. Maybe plopping off one of the plywood boards over the windows. We all promised.” He was standing tall, asserting some kind of authority that prior bravery had granted him.

“I didn’t say anything about not doing it. I’m not yellow!” Charlie B was breathing heavy as he spoke. And the darkness deepened and a small breath of a wind stirred in the near leafless trees and Charlie B froze straight up as he heard a soft moan come on the small breath of air. It rode over the thick smell of burning punk.

“We’re not alone,” he said, his hand gripping Sinagna’s arm so hard his fingernails dug into the camouflaged material of Sinagna’s fatigue jacket. He wore it in honor of a lost friend from the other end of the street, lost in Burma, in the war.

“It’s the wind, Charlie,” Sinagna said. “Nothing to it. Just the wind. It’s a midnight wind. Aunt Lil says every wind twisting around the mill has its own voice.”

And then, right then on that night, at or near the stroke of midnight, as if commanded by a presence, an omnipotence, the plywood cover over a peaked window high above our heads pulled away from the window frame with the shriek of nails being yanked. It fell and smashed on the rocks below.

We froze in place, our breaths caught in our throats. And the yearly and eerie light came at last from that high window, a red moving glow the way flames lick at campfire wood. Slow. Sultry. Expectant. Then it glowed a sudden blue, then a red and a green glow. And the moan came again, and faint and distant music trooped in with it as if drums and fifes were playing on the side of Vinegar Hill and were bouncing off the mill’s walls, and firelight swept against the high window like a new fire banked in a furnace. It was music and it was just a step up from silence, and it was so light, so distant, so feathery, so winged, it might not have been. “Now,” it said in an unspoken voice. We were not sure of anything.

Charlie B dropped his bag of fireworks, his in-taken breath merely a small echo riding his body. Right down to his new sneakers he shook. Injun Joe held his box as if it were his last bullet. Something was standing against us in the night and we’d have to protect ourselves. Sinagna, jawboned Sinagna, expeditionary leader, his nerves cut and frayed only a bit, from his glowing punk lit and heaved a long-wicked 2-inch salute at the nearest plywood window.

“There!” he said. “There!” The enemy to be accosted and surmounted.

The explosion ripped into the silence, and the sudden flare of light lit the hooded window and disappeared just as quickly as it had come. The overhead light leaped again, the window suddenly alive in red and blue and then an orange glow. Drums, old drums, beat somewhere, an aged tattoo of drums, a line of drums in a long forgotten parade, a rolling echo from a lost or glorious battle. At first we thought the drums came from Vinegar Hill, and then we realized that they came from inside the mill, off its walls. And fifes came slowly with the drums, and the flames glowed brighter in the high window. And a discipline, each of us noticed, seemed to come with the drums and the fifes, a unity, regulated though faint, all as if under orders, commanded.

And then, with a sudden and profound silence, the light went out. Darkness fell again, more than a beggar this time; a darkness full of time and lineal pursuits, a darkness of summonses and declarations from an insurmountable place, a darkness reaching out to touch us. We shivered in anticipation more than fear. We were present at something unknown but pronounceable, ghostly but real. From Vinegar Hill again it seemed to come, the faint and distant call of mystic notes riding on a wind, riding a thermal the eye never sees; intelligent notes, bugle notes, timeless notes.

Sinagna leaped from his kneeling position. “Listen!” he commanded, his voice stern, demanding, the barking voice of an infantry line sergeant. “Listen!”

Overhead the red glow came back in the high round window near the peak of the mill. And the notes sounded clear and distinct. And they came from inside the mill, not from outside, but from inside Scott’s Mill.

Those were timeless notes coming at us.

With messages in them.

Charlie B and Injun Joe reached for small recognition of the notes, but it was Sinagna who knew them. “That’s Assembly that’s playing. I heard it on Tim’s web site. That’s Assembly. I heard it on a web site. I downloaded a whole mess of them, but that’s Assembly.” In his voice was heard a definite change, as though he might have snapped to attention in the ranks.

Mesmerized, we heard more bugle calls, some Sinagna knew and some he didn’t. He was not flustered. “Call to Arms,” he said proudly, listening again, nodding his head, “and Boots and Saddles” a few moments later, and then, still distant notes coming to them, “First Call,” and “Call to Quarters,” and finally, the sounds now down inside us, touching at our souls, standing at attention in the dark, he said in that deepening voice, “To the Colors.”

Our blood froze. We were rapt and enraptured, transplanted but in place, something crying to get out of us, to have a voice of its own. Each of us felt it in his own way, yet somehow acknowledged the sharing.

The door of Scott’s Mill popped open right beside us, and the faint and still far-reaching notes came to them, and horse hooves tromping on hard ground and the clumping of hundreds and hundreds of boots on packed gravel. We looked inside, amazed, frightened, and a line of horse troops, grey and blue cavalry, passed in review, eyes-righting us, moving past us in formation. Others came clothed in a dozen or so different uniforms, Johnny Reb grey, Yankee blue, Army O.D., Airman’s blue and Sailor blue, dress Marine and fatigue Marine, war on top of endless war, time on top of immemorial time. They were illustrations of all wars, and all losses, and the ranks were thick and heavy and dense with the souls of innumerable warriors.

From a post in the ranks, well back in the ranks, a deep and resonant voice came to us. “We’re coming home, boys. We’re coming home and we don’t have to go off anywhere anymore. Not this night. Not ever. We’re all the ones who never came home, but we’ve been waiting for you. We’ve tried every Fourth of July for years. It’s only on the Fourth of July that we can come home.”

From a limitless distance, evoked and called at one side of the mill’s interior, they came, a long endless march of men, shoulders back, heads up, coming home after their own eternity; Gettysburg, Stone Mountain, San Juan, Chateau Thierry, Omaha Beach, Kwajalein, Chosin Reservoir, Heartbreak Ridge, Dak To, deserts and jungles too numerous to mention, all the odd points of the fiery Earth, and all the harsh graves of that eternity.

“Eyes right,” the deep voice said, commanding, and then, as if stating a memorial of their own kind, added, “We did it for the young un’s and for the old-timers, too.”

Sinagna stood as tall as he’d ever stand. He motioned us to attention as new notes came on the thin, cool air. “Retreat,” he whispered, the huskiness suddenly at home in his voice, arrived manhood in his voice, spine upright, nerves in place.

 

“That’s Retreat,” he said again, his voice still deeper, resonant. The sombre notes carried for long moments and the line of troops and horsemen stood at attention, just the way Sinagna and we stood our ground.

And then, more distant than any call ever heard before or ever afterward, spilling  first out of a summer darkness and then out of a resounding radiance hitting us straight one, the smell of burning punk as acrid as spent gunpowder crawling in the air, a lone and distant bugle’s notes came riding another feathery and light thermal from the very ends of time.

“You’ll not forget this night, will you, boys?” And the deep voice was gone and the troopers were gone and the horsemen were gone, and the lights drifted off to night again, and a single and momentary note from a still more distant bugle hung itself on the pinnacle of air as Taps ended the most memorable holiday of all time.

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Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea 1951. Books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short SpansCollection of FriendsFrom the Quickening.  eBooks: Korean EchoesThe Westering, (nominated for National Book Award); from Danse Macabre are Murder at the Forum (NHL mystery)Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment,and An Accountable Death. Work in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Copperfield ReviewCahoodaloodalingLiterary OrphansOcean Magazine, Frontier TalesWestern Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, 3 AM Magazine, Nazar Look, Eastlit and Rope & Wire Magazine. He has 24 Pushcart nominations. In the Garden of Long Shadows published by Pocol Press, 2014, to be followed by The Nations, about Native Americans.

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Knickers

By Tom Sheehan

I was fighting it all the way, wearing knickers, me, twelve going on thirty it felt some days, dreams about Ginnie Wilmot practically every night now, the morning dew being the vague remnants my father spoke about with a smile on his face, new hairs in my crotch, my mother wanting her boy to look neat, my father looking at the horizon almost saying this too will pass. It was his one-shoulder shrug that carried verb and noun in its arsenal. I had early discovered that he did not need a lot of words.

My mother was looking at her choice of two hats, checking them out in the mirror on her bureau. A dried flower was creased in cellophane in one corner of the mirror; I’d heard some reference about it but had declined interest. My father’s picture, him in a Marine uniform, was framed in a second corner, my sisters and me in another, in our Sunday best a year earlier. A palm frond from Palm Sunday twisted itself across the top of the mirror. I think the hats were as old as I was. I knew she would pick the purple one. Her eyes announced the decision prematurely; again, an article of speech. Much of the time we were a family of silence, where looks or shrugs or hand gestures or finger pointing said all that was needed. My cousin Phyllenda had given the hat to her. “You’ll look great in this one.” I could never tell my mother Phyllenda’s boyfriend had swiped it from a booth in Dougherty’s Pub in Malden Square where he’d go of an evening or two. I’d seen them talking an evening on the porch, Dermott’s hand up under Phyllenda’s dress and it not yet dark.

A May Sunday was a bit snappy this early with the sunrise. “There will be hundreds of people at Nahant Beach today.” Both the radio in the bedroom and the kitchen were on; her music almost mute in the background. She looked out the window across Cliftondale Square, across the green of the traffic circle and the new green of elms already leaping at full growth against the sky. On the third floor we lived, yet not as high as some of the elms. Gently a nod was spoken, an affirmation. “They are waiting for summer at the beach,” she added. “They go walking on the beach looking for it. It’s over the horizon a few weeks yet. We will go right from church. You will wear your new green suit.” At length it had become her trip-hammer approach, the hard music. In that voice I felt the agencies of iron and slag at a mix. “You don’t know how proud I am of you in your new suit. And two pair of pants, at that.” For sure, iron and slag in her words, the new and the dross. At her lighting up about the new suit, I cringed. Two pair of pants seemed eternal, would carry me into high school, into football, the mold of the locker room, pal-talk growing the way my older brother would nod, owning up to all I had heard. Hell, there’d be knickers, for God’s sake, for girls, lots of them prettier than Ginnie Wilmot who once sat across a log flashing her white underpants at me so that something happened in my throat, something so dark and dry and dreadful that I can taste it yet.

Simon Goldman it was who sprung the suit on my mother, little shrunken Simon with the poppy eyes and the red face, on Saturday morning collecting his due of pennies she yet owed on a parlor set. “It’s green herringbone tweed, my Helen,” he said, in that possessive delivery he must have developed early in his game. “It has two pair of pants. For you yet cheaper than anyone. Resplendent he will be in it. Resplendent. No boy in this whole town has a suit like it. And the famous golfers wear knickers, I’ve seen them in newsreels at the theater. Hogan and O’Brien and Downey, McDevitt and Fitzpatrick, McHenry and that Shaun whoever from Swampscott.” He was inventive, you had to admit. I’d have said a liar as well as a schemer. “Two pair of pants. Green. Herringbone. Think of the message.” His eyes almost fell out of his head, dropping Ireland almost at his feet, dropping it at her feet. I almost pushed him down the stairs, he was at it again, selling her, saying it was a bargain, saying you people are climbing the social ladder on my advice and merchandise. Truth is, she cautioned me once, only once, on how I should remember Simon. “I found him,” she had said, “he didn’t find me.”

The worst part of it all, putting on the suit, the knickers with knee length socks, was having to take off my sneakers. I thought they were welded to me. I thought I’d wear them forever. I belonged in sneakers, foul or fair, “But not in your new suit.” It was as if her whole foot had come down on the subject. My father lifted his chin, flicked his head aside, gave off a mere suggestion of a nod, shrugged his shoulders. This too shall pass. With a knife he could not have carved it deeper.

In my new greenery we headed for Nahant Beach, me in my green knickers, four sisters all dolled up in the back seat of the old Graham, the titters and snickers behind their hands, my unsworn vow becoming animate at the back of my mind, a prowler on the outskirts of a campground.

Up front, in her purple hat, a purple dress with a big collar, a black pocketbook with an over-scored but lustrous patina, my mother looked straight ahead, playing now and then with the knob on the radio, trying to catch La Scala or New York out for a morning stroll.

She stared at nothing she might wish to have. Beside her, between her and my father in a car borrowed from my uncle, was the second pair of green herringbone knickers. Not knowing why they were there, I nevertheless felt my father’s hand in it. I wondered if there had been an argument’s movement along with the package, or behind it. Arguments I had heard, about dozens of things, then quiet discussions. Once it had been about the radio one could hardly hear. “Music has shaped me,” my mother once said, “from the very first touch to the very first clench of fist..” That’s when I knew she loved the brass of a band or an orchestra, not just the oompa of it, but the cold clear energy of horns clearing their throats with melodies one could only dream of.

“Toot the horn,” my mother said. “Now there’s Dolly Donovan.” Her wave was thorough and friendly. No message hung on its signal. “She’ll be at the beach. Maurice will bring her.” I did not deflect a message in that pronouncement: it came anyway. Maurice bid and Maurice done. Some laws, it seemed to say, were carved in stone. It could have said Life is more than being made to wear greenknickers, but I wouldn’t let it.

In the rearview mirror I caught my father’s eye. “We might as well see what Forty Steps looks like today, and then come back to the beach.” The gears downshifted as he swung the corner down Boston Street in Lynn. We had come over the bridge spanning the Saugus River. In my nose the salt was alive, and pictures came with it. The gulls, by the hundreds, whipped a frenzy. Waves dashed on the rocks of Nahant, especially where Forty Steps climbed upward from the froth of water. The lobster boats, working yet, bobbed out on the Atlantic. Under sunlight majestic white sails of sloops and schooners and sailboats from Elysium, Islands of the Blessed and Marblehead darted like skaters before the wind. On that same wind brigantines and caravels and corsairs leaped from my reading, taking me away from green knickers and Nahant all the way back to Elysium and Ginnie Wilmot, the salt spray clean and sprightly and the dry vulture of taste yet in my throat from one glimpse of white underpants. Would that mystery, that sight, never go away?

The Graham, brush-painted green, lumpy for the tour of Nahant where Cabots and Rockerfellers and Lowells and Longfellow himself once sat their thrones, cruised along the Nahant Causeway. In the slight breeze you could feel the sun bleaching stones, sand, the inner harbor’s glistening rocks throwing off plates of light like the backs of hippopotami caught in a satin lacquer. People dressed for church and late dinners and nights on the town walked along the beach, their best clothes akin to badges of some sort.

“My, look at that white hat with the huge brim,” my mother said, pointing out a woman holding a man’s arm, three children at their heels. The girls were still giggling behind their hands, restrained while my father was driving, on their best behavior. Once on the beach they would become themselves. And I would set about de-suiting myself.

When we strolled over to the Forty Steps, the waves talking to us, the crowd of people on all approaches, I saw other boys in knickers, but no herringbone green tweed. No iron mother holding her whip and her pride in one hand. A few giggles and harrumps I heard, the way my grandfather could talk, making a point or two on his own. No question in my mind they were directed at my pants more than the whole suit. These people could also nod, shrug, gesture, make sense without words. I wondered what made me want to read in the first place, seeking all the adventure of new words, in this wide world of the body’s semaphore, so expressive, so legitimate.

I knew it wouldn’t take long, not at Nahant, not at the edge of the great ocean itself, not here where the Norsemen and Vikings and Irish sailors were flung to across the seas with Europe behind shoving them relentlessly. My parents, arm in arm, walked on pavement, the girls broke free with yells, I fled down to the rocks at the ocean’s edge. With an odd gesture, my mother lifted a hand to her face, as if surprise dwelt there to be touched, to be awakened, to be lifted for use. That’s when I knew she was the smartest person in the whole world. She had seen it all coming, had practically choreographed the whole thing, and my father thinking he was in control all that time. At last she had measured me against all other boys in knickers. And found something wanting.

Green is as green does, I could almost hear myself say as I slipped on the rocks heavy with seaweed still with salt, still with water, still with an unbecoming dye residing pimple-like, blister-like, pod-like, in its hairy masses. It was more like sitting down in puddled ink, that intentional trip, trying to be a loving son, finding it so difficult in green knickers, obeying more primal urges.

“What a mess you’ve made of yourself,” she said when she saw me, that hand still in surprise at her face. “Go up to the car and change your pants. I brought the other pair along,” so you could get rid of them also she seemed to say. My father had found the horizon to his liking, the thin line of boyhood and manhood merging out there on the edge of the world; no shrug of the shoulder, no sleight of hand, but a look outward that was as well a look backward. I saw it all.

I’m so damned lucky, I said to myself, loving them forever, and then some.

________________________________________________________________

Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry Regiment, Korea 1951 and graduated from Boston College in 1956. His books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short SpansA Collection of FriendsFrom the Quickening.  He has 24 Pushcart nominations, and 365 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. Recent eBooks from Milspeak Publishers include Korean Echoes, 2011, nominated for a Distinguished Military Award and The Westering, 2012, nominated for a National Book AwardHis newest eBooks, from Danse Macabre/Lazarus/Anvil, are  Murder at the Forum, an NHL mystery novel, Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment and An Accountable Death. His work is in Rosebud (6 issues), The Linnet’s Wings, Ocean Magazine, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Frontier TalesWestern Online Magazine and many internet global sites and print magazines/anthologies including 3 AM Magazine, Nazar Look and Eastlit. A new collection of short stories, In the Garden of Long Shadows, will be issued by Pocol Press this summer. 

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Noah Bickford at the Great Divide

By Tom Sheehan

Noah Bickford was running ahead of the mad sheriff of Wilcox Springs, Gunther Ambush, and his underlings, a posse with a completely distorted badge of authority and an irrepressible need for killing quarry or hanging them as soon as caught, guilty or not. Whole towns in Arizona believed that Sheriff  Ambush had grown into his family name, assuming what the name really meant in the cruel world that had sent his father to prison to die there alone … for a crime that he did not commit.

Ambush wanted nothing more than to get even with the entire west.

It was widely hoped that some singular force, like a total town, might rise up and decide about the criminally-bent sheriff and the cruel gang he led, or at least draw him and his men into the final showdown. So far in the malevolent situation, nobody, town or individual, had stepped up to settle matters. Ambush had a small army at his command, and they shared in all the stolen or manipulated riches that came into their phantom coffers.

All of that was in Bickford’s mind as he fled ahead of Ambush through foothills and a string of canyons and open valleys in the far western part of the territory, mountains rising all around him on the high horizon crisscrossed with a myriad of difficult trails. He made up his mind that he had get to the big river, set his horse off on its own, head downstream where he thought Ambush and his gang would never follow him.

There was no way around his plight: he had to get to California or Mexico, one way or the other, to sail on the free and wide seas

As a youngster Bickford had heard of other crooked or power-searching sheriffs; his father had told him, “They go with the territory, son, the territory they’re trying to control. Some want to own the territory, but not all of them. Just watch for those who want to own more than what’s theirs. Don’t get in their way.”

Now he was in the way of Ambush and his well-paid thugs, one young man out ahead of the sheriff, a chase lasting more than two weeks of a mad dash in the territory. His crime, perceived by Ambush, was that Bickford was the only rider they had seen near the site of a deadly encounter on the trail outside Albertville … driver, shotgun, and four passengers killed, horses killed in their traces, and all valuables stolen from luggage or persons.

Ambush’s words were loud and convincing, as usual, to the hardened members of the crew and some starry-eyed youngsters who had wandered into the sheriff’s clutches, often with one way out of the membership … feet first, or immediately following a bullet fired from an unseen shooter. “That one was trying to get away from the scene of his crime. He probably shot the woman last after he took all her jewelry and then hid it someplace out there on the trail that we have no chance in Hell of ever finding, so we have to settle for his life for their lives. I know you all understand what I’m saying.”

The steely eyes put an end to any doubts about their mission … or the next one most likely coming down the trail at them. “The lawman’s duty never ends,” he’d often say at day’s end.

It was therefore most judicial that he be brought to justice for that crime, the most suitable suspect; suspects, in Ambush’s mind, were guilty as perceived, on-the-spot guilty.

Bickford had not seen the crime but had seen two men ride away from the area, swing about after making a stop in the foothills, and then rejoin the posse with Sheriff Ambush. He was convinced it was like a dog chasing its own tail. There was no two ways about that, and the posse was a formidable foe, housing its own criminals in its midst.

When the posse spotted Bickford, within an hour after the crime, the whole gang of them set out after him. He knew who they were and what they would do, would have to do, as Ambush said time and again, “Out on the trail it is hard to keep a man prisoner because there are so many escape loops he can take.”

After the initial surprise of the posse getting on his trail and sticking there for close to two weeks in the range of mountains, Bickford felt the fatigue coming on him and hoped the posse knew the same exhaustion.

He could only draw on things he had heard, to guess what Ambush was saying to his minions; “Keep to it. You’re real hound dogs and when the good people hear about our capture of the road bandit, we’ll all share the reward I’m sure the West Coach Company will eventually post on it.” He laughed insidiously when he added, “You can bet the last coin on the table they’ll do just what I say or they’ll be a dozen more robberies just like this one we’re putting an end to.” His eyes vaguely shifted to the real robbers and killers, essential members of every one of his posses.

Hearing a disturbing sound closer to him than he wanted, Bickford turned a tight twist in the trail, rocky climbs on each side of him, and came face to face with a young man about his own age. The young rider on a black mare, Stetson tight on his head as though he was afraid it would fall off, had a gun in his hand. And he was as wide-eyed as Bickford; both men surprised at the meeting, both men young.

“Well,” the nervous posse member said, “looks like I caught me a criminal. Don’t move a muscle, mister, or you’re dead.”

“You mean dead without a trial for a crime I didn’t do,” Bickford said. “You don’t even know who took what from that stagecoach and where they went after doing what they did.”

“What are you talking about? The sheriff says you’re guilty as sin, and we caught you in the act.” He paused and seemed to qualify his conviction, “Well, almost.”

“The Hell you did. Two men in your own posse did it and hid some stuff in the hills and went back and rejoined the posse. Didn’t you or anybody else see two men come back and mix in the posse?“ He leveled his eyes at the young posse member as though he was wielding a spade to dig out the truth.

“Sure I did. Moss and Darwin came back from an assignment the sheriff sent them on.” His innocence, and ignorance of what the two men did, was easily noted.

“Ever see them go off before and come back after a spell?”

“Yup, once or twice, but they’re trusted deputies of the sheriff. Been old hands with him for a long time.”

Bickford’s questions were delivered as rapid as gunshots. “So they’re special? They do special jobs? You think they’re scouts for the posse? You think that’s what they are? ”

“Sure, why not?” Ringer asked.

Bickford felt he had made a cut in the armor of belief, so he explained further, “A posse is like an arrow. It gets on its mark and stays there. It doesn’t swing wide, look for things, rush back to tell the sheriff they’ve found the ones they’re looking for? You think it’s so simple that they come back and just say, ‘Let’s go get them. We know where they are.’ Think that’s how it goes?”

“Why couldn’t it be like that? Like I said, they’ve been with him a long time.”

Bickford said, “They hid something up in one of the canyons. One of them had to scale the side of a cliff to hide it in a small cave. I marked the place on the trail. I can find it again.”

“Why couldn’t you have hid it?”

“Sure, me spend an hour or so on the side of a cliff like one of them did, no horse under me, and your whole crooked crew chasing me and ready to hang me without a trial because it’d be easier for Ambush to present it that way. Do you really think I’d take time while being chased to climb up and down a stupid cliff for a couple of hours and not worry a bit about getting a rope too tight on my neck? Really think so? Does Ambush keep mentioning the rewards that come along afterwards?”

“All the time he does, like it’s a song.” The youngster’s tone revealed he was bending to rational thinking.

“See,” Bickford said, “you’re even smarter than I thought you were. What’s your name? Mine’s Noah Bickford.” He stuck out his hand.

“I’m Josh Ringer,” came the reply, and the young and suddenly innocent smile crossed his face as they shook hands. “It’s a lousy way he does business. It had me thinking a few times and I guess I didn’t think hard enough, not even about the things I was seeing with Eric Moss and his pal Darwin and how they seemed out of place. What a fool I’ve been.”

“Lots of fools out this way, Josh. They know about Ambush, but too many of them are afraid of speaking up. He has a lot of power to call on. It scares me to think what they’d do if they catch me.”

“I only saw one hanging,” Ringer replied. “It was terrible. The man’s boots were still shaking even when we rode off. But I saw two others shot down at their campfire, just like they were animals. I got sick thinking about it.”

“What happens if you wanted to leave them and they knew it? Would they let you? Ever think Ambush would say, ‘See you later. Thanks for the company?”

“I don’t want to wait for that chance. Let’s do it now.”

Bickford said, with confidence in his voice, “The best thing is to get out of here and get to the river. Go to California or Mexico, just get away. They’ll never let us go if they catch us. Court and trial and jury and sentence would all happen out here, surrounded by no place and no thing, no witnesses, no noise.”

Ringer swung his horse around and said, “Let’s go.”

The new pair of compadres headed toward the river, which Bickford thought was about 20 miles away. He made sure his weapons were loaded, and Ringer followed suit, nodding at his new friend with warm acknowledgment, as though he was saying, “Good advice is welcome anytime.” He also could be saying, “I trust this fellow more than I could ever trust Ambush.”

They had gone about five miles when Ringer, looking back down the trail, said, “We have company, and it looks like the whole posse coming in a bunch.”

Bickford said, “Think those two gents, Moss and Darwin, are with them? We have to keep them in mind if they’re not.”

“I’d guess there are more than a dozen in the pack, so might mean they’re with them, but I can’t be sure.”

Bickford said, “That might be a lot easier to swallow than not knowing where they are.” He tapped his spurs into the flank of the horse and said, “Let’s hightail it to the river, and hope we have enough of a lead on them to get downstream. Far ain’t far enough for me. It’s got to be like that for you.”

Their horses were at a good run when a bullet hit just over Bickford’s head, and he yelled out, “I’d say your old pals are still out here. Hightail it!” he yelled, and spurred his horse. “We got to get to the river, leave the horses. They’d chase us if we stay in the saddle.”

Bickford spurred the horse again. “Go!” he yelled and yelled it a second time, “Go!” The anxiety was firm in his voice. “Go down that pass over to the left.”

Suddenly, in their mad dash, ahead of them in the tight confines of the canyon pass, sat a man high in the saddle, his horse at a standstill, a rifle at his shoulder, ready to shoot.

Ringer yelled, “It’s Moss, Noah. He’s a good shot. You better duck! Duck!”

Bickford knew he had but seconds to make some kind of move, a feint, a self-preservation move, a life-saving gesture. A bubble started in his throat. It jumped up and down and it disappeared in his chest. A small pain started at his temples, his mind trying to work, trying to shake loose a good idea. He flashed back over all the things his father had told him. Why hadn’t he paid more attention? He needed something now, something new, something he had never done. What had the old gent said one time; “Do the unsuspected. Be different. Make them worry instead of you. Throw them off their stride. Knock their legs out from under them.”

Bickford knew it was all in his hands now. Ringer was frozen in his tracks, the reins taut in his hands, his horse at a standstill.

He spurred his horse, then jabbed him harder. The animal was off and running, his mane flying, and his rider was standing in the stirrups, and his hands, empty of weapons, were raised over his head.

“Duck, Noah!” Ringer yelled as loud as he could.

In the narrow stricture of the canyon pass, perhaps only 20 feet wide where his horse stood, Moss had a rifle to his shoulder, his eye on the sight at the end of the barrel, and he was standing in the stirrups the same way as Bickford who was now coming closer to him, his horse’s hoof clattering loud and clear coming off the cliff faces on either side.

Not sure of what was cooking in his mind, seeing an image pass in swift flight behind his eyeballs, Bickford finally ducked as he saw the flash of light at the bore of Moss’s rifle. He heard the bullet slam by him just over his head and ricochet off the rock wall.

Coming up from his crouch, his horse now in full flight, Bickford had two guns in hand. Knowing he had little chance of hitting Moss, he’d try to use Moss’s horse to his own advantage; make the horse shy, jump start, step falsely some way, toss Moss for a loop, or at least make Moss lose the grip on the rifle, take away a second close aim.

He fired off three shots from the pistol in his right hand, and two from the left hand pistol.

Flecks of light flashed up as sparks off the floor of the canyon.

Moss’s horse bolted sideways. The rifle went flying, and then the horse skittered on the slick rock floor of the canyon. As the horse started to tumble, Moss jumped free.

He came up off the ground to stare at Bickford’s drawn pistols aimed right at him.

Bickford said, “Toss your gun belt off to the side and back away … away from the rifle too.”

He nodded at Ringer who understood the instruction and retrieved the gun belt and the rifle and took them to his own horse.

“You get ahead of me on that side,” Bickford said to Ringer. “I’ll settle up with this gent.”

With all of Moss’s weapons across his pommel, Ringer started to head down the canyon trail without saying a word to Moss, whose horse had hurt one leg and was swaying side to side.

Bickford asked for Moss’s pistol, took it from Ringer and pulled all the bullets from it. He tossed one bullet as far as he could back along the canyon, put the other five in his pocket, and then dropped the pistol on the canyon floor. His final words to Moss were, “If you ever had a touch of goodness in your whole body, you’d go find that bullet and kill your horse. His leg is broken.”

The two new pards fled down the trail. After many minutes they heard a single shot, dull but echoing, rise from the canyon walls behind them. Ringer felt a special feeling come over him.

They finally reached the river and went downriver a mile or so until they reached a small cabin on the banking and a small boat pulled up in a breach of rocks. They swapped the two horses for the boat, but took their saddles. They headed downstream after Noah Bickford advised the former boat owner, “If I was you, I’d avoid any men in a posse. They might not look kindly on you if they find out we have your boat. You might hide someplace around here until they’re gone.”

The man nodded his understanding and saw the two young men turn the river bend down below. He took the horses and hid in a special place known only to him. All he remembered was what the one called Noah said to his saddle pard, “You might as well come to sea with me, Josh, if we can get there. It’s probably better than any of this.” He looked downriver, at the massive cliffs rising above the river, nodded and took his argument a little further; “Just look at those cliffs, Josh, how they leap up. I just know we got a new adventure coming our way.”

Ringer was mighty glad he was in good company … with a man who looked out for another man’s horse, who saw things quicker than he did, and who obviously picked the best paths to travel. The sea might be truly inviting. It’d be worth a try.

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Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry Regiment, Korea, 1951, and graduated from Boston College in 1956. His print/eBooks are A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, Pocol Press: Epic Cures and Brief Cases, Short Spans from Press 53; and poetry books The Saugus Book, Ah, Devon Unbound and This Rare Earth & Other Flights from Lit Pot Press. He has 24 Pushcart nominations and 360 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. Recent eBooks from Milspeak Publishers include Korean Echoes, nominated for a Distinguished Military Award and The Westering, nominated for a National Book Award. New eBooks from Danse Macabre are Murder at the Forum, Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment and An Accountable Death. Work is in/coming in Provo Canyon Review, Rosebud, The Linnet’s Wings, Ocean Magazine, and many national/global internet sites and anthologies. In the Garden of Long Shadows is in publication process with Pocol Press, which holds 7 other mss for later publication.

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Fourth of July Homecoming

By Tom Sheehan

The old mill had given off odd sounds since the day it closed down. Now it gave off a sense of passage.

All the way back to the last Fourth of July the boys had saved a cache of fireworks, the three pals, Snag and Chris and Charlie B, all twelve years old within three days of each other. “Pals to the end,” they had said, squirreling away the fireworks in Snag’s Aunt Lil’s barn leaning away from one century and into another. And many times those same hidden articles promised to smoke and explode from their secret hideaway, the boys’ want for noise and excitement so strong at times, at times like hunger tantrums. But they had saved them for a special occasion. “Promise made is promise kept,” Snag had said on Veterans’ Day, his voice hard as wire, though the tantrum pummeled alive in his gut.

So Snag and Chris and Charlie B came together on the specially appointed night, the national holiday, and crept up on the backside of the Old Scott’s Mill, closed tight as an angry man’s fist, sitting there beside the old, slow Saugus River. It was a mill as marked as time itself, whose existence seemed to transcend the town and its beginnings. Now and then it became a shell of nacre the way an early bronze moon could make it eerie and distant and out of this world. It was a piece of another time, another dimension, for none of them could begin to imagine the gallons of workers’ sweat that had seeped into the floors of the structure for parts of two centuries.

One box and two bags of choice explosives, stashed away for ninety slow-as-snails days, figured in their arms as something Fort Sumter or another historic battle site might have loosed. Tonight there’d be a new war on the silence gripping the old mill, on the monstrous darkness that moonless nights allowed to cling to the mill, and on whatever lurked in it or around it.

Lighting their sticks of punk they stood on the bank of the river and the smell coasted thickly in the night as if an old barn had been turned inside out. Once, earlier, Chris had explained that his grandfather affirmed that punk was made from camel dung. Each of them inhaled the acrid and known and nostalgic smell as it fingered memories of past celebrations filled with “oohs,’ and “ahs,” and “ohs.”

All their memories said time was eternal, spilled on a level coming to them and moving away from them, but tonight disruption was their game. Disruption and noise and affirmation of the minor manhood working its endless way down in their genes.

The Saugus River ran away at the foot of the huge red brick building, the calm waters swishing slowly against the cluttered rock dam site at the foot of the red brick building. Above them, ranging out of the trees, darkness still came plodding on, the near silence moving across their skins asking to be known. Snag’s Aunt Lil once had said darkness came on like a beggar man to close the end of day.

“It’s only brick,” Snag said, his natural spirit bucking up his current assessment. His hand touched the side of the mill, its doors now closed for as long as they had been alive; a monolithic, ghostly creature of a building, windows boarded up, doors frozen in place with huge spikes; eyes that could not see, mouths that could not speak. There was, however, something else in the touch of that stone, something mossy, something growing, something without a voice, but threatening.

They had known forever that it was there.

Snag, as fearsome as any boy they knew, could feel the presence of something if only in the touch of the stone. Creatured, but not quite visible; it might not breathe, but it was there. Yet no one, none of their friends or neighbors, had ever been hurt. It was what they had counted on, in its own perilous argument.

“Yuh,” Chris said, feeling the fuzz on the back of his neck with a threat of electricity in it, ” So how come they see a glow of flames every Fourth of July. At midnight. From the only window that’s not boarded up. The one way up in the peak out front? Tell me how that gets done. All the floors have been taken out. The whole place is nothing but a shell. So how come so many people have seen a red glow in that window way up there? Even my father said he saw it, Expected the place was about to burn down.” His twelve year old face was squeezed into his own questions, his mouth still pursed, his chin and that pursed mouth still asking for an explanation. The three of them were always blue-eyed; now, at this juncture, they were dark-eyed.

Snag bristled as only Snag could be bristled, the tooth of his name prominent, his jaw prominent, his eyes steely, his breath measured. “How should I know?” he said. “I ain’t been in there. I ain’t seen anybody go in or come out, ever. Maybe it’s like a captured Aurora Borealis, like it was caught in there the very first time it was locked up. Something crazy, like that. Or a bum gets in there every year to play tricks on us. Like having his own routine. But we promised we’d light it up one way or another. And I’m all for getting inside somehow, anyhow. Maybe plopping off one of the plywood boards over the windows. We all promised.” He was standing tall, asserting some kind of authority that prior bravery and recklessness had granted him.

“I didn’t say anything about not doing it. I’m not yellow!” Chris was breathing heavy as he spoke. And the darkness deepened and a small breath of a wind stirred in the near leafless trees and Charlie B froze straight up as he heard a soft moan come out of that small breath of air. It rode over the thick smell of the burning punk.

“We’re not alone,” he said, his hand gripping Snag’s arm so hard his fingernails dug into the camouflaged material of Snag’s fatigue jacket.

“It’s the wind, Charlie,” Snag said. “Nothing to it. Just the wind. It’s a midnight wind. Aunt Lil says every the wind around here has its own voice.”

And then, right then on that night, at or near the stroke of midnight, as if commanded by a presence, an omnipotence, the plywood cover over a peaked window high above their heads pulled away from the window frame with the shriek of nails being yanked. It fell and smashed on the rocks below.

The boys froze in place, their breaths caught between sound and no sound. And the yearly and eerie light came at last from that high window, a red moving glow the way flames lick at campfire wood. Slow. Sultry. Expectant. Then it came a sudden blue glow, then a red glow and a green glow. And the moan came again, and faint and distant music trooped in with it as if drums and fifes were playing on the side of Vinegar Hill and were bouncing off the mill’s walls, and firelight swept against the high window like a new fire banked in a furnace. It was music and it was but a step up from silence, and it was so light, so distant, so feathery, so winged, it might not have been. Now, it said in an unspoken voice. The boys were not sure of anything.

Charlie B dropped his bag of fireworks, his in-taken breath merely a small echo riding his body. Right down to his new sneakers he shook. Chris held his box as if it were his last bullet. Some thing was standing against them in the night and they must protect themselves. Snag, jawboned Snag, expeditionary leader, his nerves cut and frayed only a bit, from his glowing punk lit and heaved a long-wicked 2-inch salute at the nearest plywood window.

“There!” he said. “There!” The enemy to be accosted and surmounted.

The explosion ripped into the silence, and the sudden flare of light lit the hooded window and disappeared just as quickly as it had come. The overhead light leaped again, the window suddenly alive in red and blue and then an orange glow. Drums, old drums, beat somewhere, an old tattoo of drums, a line of drums in a long forgotten parade, a rolling echo from a lost or glorious battle. At first they believed the drums came from Vinegar Hill, and then they realized that they came from inside the old mill itself, off the walls, and fifes came slowly with the drums, and the flames glowed brighter in the high window. And a discipline, each one noticed, seemed to come with the drums and the fifes, a unity, regulated though faint, as if under orders.

And then, with a sudden and profound silence, the light went out. Darkness fell again, more than a beggar this time; a dense darkness full of time and lineal pursuits, a darkness of summonses and declarations from an insurmountable place, a darkness that reached out to touch the three boys. They shivered in anticipation more than fear. They were present at something unknown but pronounceable, ghostly but real. From Vinegar Hill again it seemed to come, the faint and distant call of mystic notes riding an unknowing wind, riding a brief thermal the eye never sees; intelligent notes, bugle notes, timeless notes.

Snag leaped from his kneeling position. “Listen!” he commanded, his voice stern, demanding, the barking voice of an infantry line sergeant. “Listen!”

Overhead the red glow came back in the high round window near the peak of the old mill. And the notes sounded clear and distinct. And they came from inside the mill, not from the outside, but from inside old Scott’s Mill.

Those were timeless notes coming at them.

With messages in them.

Charlie B and Chris reached for minute recognition of the notes, but it was Snag who knew them. “That’s Assembly that’s playing. I heard it on Tim’s web site. That’s Assembly. I heard it on a web site. I downloaded a whole mess of them, but that’s Assembly.” In his voice was heard a definite change, as though he might have snapped to attention in the ranks.

Mesmerized, they heard more bugle calls, some Snag knew and some he didn’t. He was not flustered. “Call to Arms,” he said proudly, listening again, nodding his head, “and Boots and Saddles” a few moments later, and then, still distant notes coming to them, “First Call,” and “Call to Quarters,” and finally, the sounds now down inside them, touching at their souls, standing at attention in the dark, he said in that deepening voice, “To the Colors.”

Their blood froze. They were rapt and enraptured, transplanted but in place, something crying to get out of them, to have a voice of its own. Each of them felt it in their own way, yet somehow acknowledged the sharing.

The door of old Scott’s Mill popped open right beside them, and the faint and still far-reaching notes came to them, and horse hooves tromping on hard ground and the clumping of hundreds and hundreds of boots on packed gravel. The boys looked inside, amazed, frightened, and a line of horse troops, gray and blue cavalry, passed in review, eyes-righting them, moving past them in formation. Others came clothed in a dozen or so different uniforms, Johnny Reb gray, Yankee blue, Army O.D., airman’s blue and sailor blue, dress Marine and fatigue Marine, war on top of endless war, time on top of immemorial time. They were an illustration of all wars, and all losses, and the ranks were thick and heavy and dense with the souls of innumerable warriors.

From a post in the ranks, well back in the ranks, a deep and resonant voice came to them. “We’re coming home, boys. We’re coming home and we don’t have to go off anywhere anymore. Not this night. Not ever. We’re all the ones who never came home, but we’ve been waiting for you. We’ve tried every Fourth of July for years. It’s only on the Fourth that we can come home.”

From a limitless distance, evoked and called at one side of the mill’s interior, they came, a long endless march of men, shoulders back, heads up, coming home after their own eternity; Gettysburg, Stone Mountain, San Juan, Chateau Thierry, Omaha Beach, Kwajalein, Chosin Reservoir, Heartbreak Ridge, Dak To, deserts and jungles too numerous to mention, all the odd points of the fiery Earth, and all the harsh graves of that eternity.

“Eyes right,” the deep voice said, commanding, and then, as if stating a memorial of their own kind, added, “We did it for the young un’s and for the old-timers, too.”

Snag stood as tall as he’d ever stand. He motioned his comrades to attention as new notes came on the thin, cool air. “Retreat,” he whispered, the huskiness suddenly at home in his voice, arrived manhood in his voice, spine upright, nerves in place. “That’s Retreat,” he said again, his voice still deeper, resonant. The somber notes carried for long moments and the line of troops and horsemen stood at attention, just the way Snag and his pals stood.

And then, more distant than any call ever heard before or ever afterward, out of a summer darkness, the smell of burning punk as acrid as spent gunpowder crawling in the air, a lone bugle’s notes came riding another feathery and light thermal from the very ends of time.

“You’ll not forget this night, will you, boys?” And the deep voice was gone and the troopers were gone and the horsemen were gone, and the lights drifted off to night again, and a single and momentary note from a still more distant bugle hung itself on the pinnacle of air as Taps ended the most memorable holiday of all time.

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Tom Sheehan served in 31st Infantry Regiment, Korea, 1951-52, and graduated Boston College, 1956. Poetry books include This Rare Earth & Other Flights; Ah, Devon Unbowed and The Saugus Book.  He has 20 Pushcart nominations, 340 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine (and never been on a horse), work in Rosebud Magazine (5), The Linnet’s Wings (6) out of Galway, Ocean Magazine (8), and many internet sites/print issues/anthologies  including Nervous Breakdown, Eskimo Pie, Copperfield Review, Faith-Hope-Fiction, Subtle Tea, Danse Macabre, Deep South Magazine, Best of Sand Hill Review, Best of Frontier Tales, Wilderness House Literary Review, MGVersion2Datura, Dew on the Kudzu, Literary Orphans, Eastlit, and Nazar Look, etc. His work has been published in Romania, France, Ireland, England, Scotland, Italy, Thailand, China, Mexico, Canada, etc. His latest eBook, an NHL mystery, is Murder at the Forum, released January 2013 by Danse Macabre-Lazarus-Anvil Fiction in Las Vegas, which treats of the Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens long-time rivalry in a distinctively new slant. Two mysteries are scheduled for 2013: Death of a Lottery Foe and Death by Punishment. Other eBooks at Amazon, BN, or Smashwords include the collections Epic Cures (with an Indie Award); Brief Cases, Short Spans, Press 5; A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, Pocol Press.  His newest eBooks from Milspeak Publishers are Korean Echoes, nominated for a Distinguished Military Award, and The Westering, 2012, nominated for a National Book Award by the publisher (with 7 collections completed and in the publisher’s queue). His newest eBook is Murder at the Forum, from Danse Macabre-Lazarus Press, 2013.

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A Dragoon’s Adventure

By Tom Sheehan

The cowman Oliver Weddle sat his horse on a small hillock, looking out over his ranch, the grass running off to the hills, Texas itself stiffening his backbone as it always had. He tried again to count the help he’d need to get the ranch back in prime order after his return from the war, wishing some of his command had come along with him when he left the service. They were good soldiers, riders, and courageous and loyal to duty; but had their own visions of search. Three foremen in a row had failed him and their mission, one or two he suspected had complicated issues on purpose. So glaring were the failures that they cost him a good deal of money. Now he was contemplating what would happen if he didn’t get a good man for the job.

Even as his backbone stiffened again, hope still working him with lures, he caught sight of an odd rider coming his way, ramrod straight in the saddle, commanding the horse, pride in the pair, but an unusual pride and seemingly an uncomfortable pride.

The rider was odd in manner and wore a strange hat, its brim swept to one side and up along his head, a long loop of leather hanging about his chest to catch that hat if blown off. A saber’s sheath and holsters for a rifle and an ax were strapped to his saddle, part of each weapon clearly visible. The saddle itself was different than a western saddle. Such equipment immediately set the rider off from the usual rider in the west, marking him as an object of attention and potential derision. A cardinal red shirt, scarred or stained where military chevrons once were attached, was filled by a rugged body, huge upper arms and prominent, wide shoulders. The man’s neck was thick, tanned, muscled. Weddle suspected the man was not comfortable in the saddle but bore any and all his discomforts with command and control, like a poor cowpoke dancer challenged at a barn rally.

“Sir,” the rider said on reining his horse in at Weddle’s side, “I am one-time Sergeant Branwell Kirkness, late of His Royal Majesty’s 6th Inniskilling Dragoons Cavalry Regiment, war my training ground and war my nature. Finding my pay cut after harsh service in India and South Africa, my comrades so treated likewise, I departed the military in 1865 and I am looking for a job riding herd here in western America. The chip I carry on my shoulder concerning my military treatment is most likely evident in all my outward manners and can be determined, by the most observant people, as roiling under my skin. But I am a hard and loyal subordinate when treated with respect and will protect with my life if necessary all trusts given unto me.”

He stared into Weddle’s eyes when he said, “Do I have a position in your employ?”

“That you do, sir,” Weddle said, the iron up his back stiffer than ever, and hope as firm.

There, at that moment, began one of the great associations in Texas cow history.

Kirkness said to Weddle, upon being hired as foreman, “Tell me what you need done, but don’t tell me how to do it.”

“I need a crew to drive a herd of 3000 cows to Fort Gibson and merge them with two other herds for a drive up the Shawnee Trail to Abilene. I’ve heard they’ll be 10,000 cows in the final push into Kansas. There’s money to be made while the opportunity lasts.”

“That I will do,” Kirkness said, his voice as sure as a line sergeant’s voice. “When is the drive to start?”

“In two days.”

That evening former Dragoon sergeant and new BLB foreman Branwell Kirkness was in the Barrows Saloon, leaning against the bar, talking to one man who was a possible hire. “I don’t expect promise from anybody, only duty from men with heart. Of course,” he added with appropriate needling, “not all men have such heart. I am too particular to hire a slave or a roustabout or a lackey. I just want men. It may seem such a simple demand, but it has a lot at stake. Real men are rare when it gets tough.”

“Yeh,” said a voice from a nearby table, “how come the BLB hires foreigners wearing funny hats to be their top man? Ain’t that a kinda funny hat?” A big, bony man, looking hard as a rock, stood up and faced Kirkness. “What is that hat, mister? Your mother make it for Christmas or did you bring it all the way from Inja with you?”

With one punch Kirkness dropped the big man beside the table. The big man did not move. Five minutes later he was still motionless. Stillness, sudden stillness in a noisy saloon, came with the mystery that silence has.

Kirkness eventually said, to all the cowpokes in the saloon, “I’m looking for real men, not flag mouths that can’t take a punch. I wouldn’t have that man now prone on the floor handling my wagon on a Sunday ramble. In India he would not have lasted one skirmish against the Gurkhas or the Sikhs at their worst. Nor would he have made his way against the Africans bent on freedom. If you want to measure men, measure me. I would guess that the prostrate figure there on the floor is typical of you westerners; all mouth and no guts for a long drive, or taking orders from their betters, or averse to good pay, real decent pay and a piece of the big pie, as the boss man has promised. How you ever did wrest the colony from the Mother country goes beyond my ken.”

So convincing was Kirkness’s approach that the following morning he arrived at the BLB Ranch with 11 men, and more on the way. The sun was shining on the small parade, with former sergeant Kirkness riding out front of the new hires, straight and upright in the saddle, his funny hat perched atop his head. Some of the new hires were battle-tested on the way to the ranch when Kirkness was openly challenged. He pummeled three men before dawn slipped up on them. Now, in the clear sunlight of morning, Oliver Weddle watched his new foreman bring a trail crew to the BLB. A sudden shot of surprise and happiness flooded his frame and he rode out to meet the men.

Weddle stood in his stirrups to get a clear look at his new crew. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I am pleased to meet you. I trust you have met Sergeant Kirkness and know now who the real boss is. I too am a mere hireling here, but with a great project in front of us, with the promise of a great payday for all of us, we can complete our task.” He pointed at Kirkness and added, in a voice full of will and determination, “That man will take us to Hell and back if that is what it will take, clear through the Oklahoma Indian territory. I don’t doubt for a minute that he’ll get us through and that some of you, wiser after the journey, will start your own business. There’s room for all in this part of the land. The east is hungry for good beef, from Chicago to Philadelphia to New York City to Boston, Texas steaks have caused a craving. I don’t know how long it will last, but let’s get in on the feeding.”

In the ranks a soft voice said, “Amen.”

In the matter of two days a cook with trail experience was hired, a remuda assembled for herders and a remuda boss put in charge, assignments wagered between the men, and a partner system set in place. Kirkness was highly in favor of the partner system.  “Stony, no matter where Clint Harkness goes, you be his pard. Keep your eyes open when it’s your turn to do so, and he will do his in turn. The man who falls asleep at his watch gets the holy hell from me, and then some. And you’ve seen some of that and then some. I don’t have time to fool around or play games this side of beef delivery. Be alert. Be aware. Be smart. It’ll all come back on you.

At the outset of an Indian attack in the middle of Oklahoma, the Indians rode in against the herd in a double column, as if trying to split the herd and drive cattle off through whatever proved to be the weakest side, a maneuver none of the cowpokes had seen before.

“What the hell they up to, Cap’n?” one rider said. “I ain’t seen them do this before.”

Kirkness replied from horseback, “I’ve seen this before, in India, at the hand of the Gurkhas, some of the finest fighters in the world, and the meanest I’ve ever seen in action.” He yelled to any herder close enough to hear him, “Fire on the right column. Concentrate on the right column. Obliterate the right column. Fire on the right.”

He said it a dozen times.

Then, heedless of the onslaught and the odds, he swung head on at the left hand column and brought his rifle to bear on the column heading in on his herd and emptied the rifle. Then he blazed away with his six guns and saw several Indians fall from their mounts in succession. The raiders veered off from the left hand column as the right column suffered significant casualties as they were repelled by the herders, and the cattle in a mad turmoil it would take hours to arrest. The main attack, though, was stemmed in a matter of minutes and three other riders rode out and joined Kirkness in his continuing rush at the Indians.

Kirkness made a point of driving a couple of cows toward the retreating Indians, knowing it was cheap enough to buy some time by assuring they had meat for their meals. When the Indians were all driven off, including the few cows that Kirkness assured were in close pursuit of the fleeing braves, night came down on the herd as most of the herd was finally rounded up. Kirkness went on a regular night watch. He had done so since the drive first started.

Near midnight, from the edge of a small dip in the land, he heard the moans of a distressed person and found an Indian suffering from a serious wound. He managed to stop his bleeding, bind him with a piece of his shirt, and hustle him back to the chuck wagon where his cook could better treat and dress the wound. The cook was a good man at his trade and almost as good as any doctor in the area, and had no aversion to treating the Indian who was still unconscious.

“You know what this’n be like when he wakes full, boss. He won’t be any less meaner’n he was afore. Too bad he won’t git to know what you done for him. Want me to tie his hands?”

“Best do as you ask, Silas. Tight at each wrist but loose enough between them so he understands he’s been left to have some use of his hands. We will try to communicate any way we can. Let us hope he has some understanding of the situation.” Looking down at the brave, who was obviously a normally rugged individual, he added, “Poor bloke is not about to go too far in his shape. Set a bit of food where he can have it if he chooses. Keep trying to communicate any way possible.”  He went back on his watch for another hour and came back to sleep. In a matter of minutes, under a blanket and beside the wagon, he went to sleep.

Just as dawn broke over the plains, Kirkness was awakened by the coughing of the wounded Indian, who had risen on the other side of the wagon. The rope at his wrists allowed him to kneel, and then, with a struggle, stand upright. Kirkness pulled on his boots, went to the Indian, and put his hand on the bandaged wound. Then he set the food the cook has prepared at the feet of the man, taking a piece of dry beef for himself and chewing on it. Retrieving his blanket he put it about the Indian shivering in the morning light.

Silas the cook, already awake, said, “Boss, some of the boys be mighty upset at the kindness you’ve spent on the critter. They been shootin’ at us and tryin’ to make off with our pay stake ‘n’ that don’t sit well.”

Kirkness was back to his old self in a hurry. “Any man wants to change things, tell him to see me, Silas. I’ll take care of his ailments too.”

The story, the rest of what has come down to me, went something like this, with portions or snippets some of which I must have conjured up in my own way of telling it; but Kirkness, that late afternoon, rode off with the wounded Indian on another horse toward the far hills. The Indian sat a horse that Kirkness told the remuda boss to “get the one we can most spare.”

Half a dozen riders watched the boss man ride off with the Indian still trussed up like he’d never get any place on his own. But somewhere out of sight of the herd and its riders, Kirkness untied the bound wrists of the brave who rode on ahead of him, turned on the crest of a small hill and held his hand palm upward. Kirkness did the same, the universal salute between warriors of the first line. The Indian rode down into a wadi and was out of sight and Kirkness, a sense of timing and circumstance working in his mind, sat his horse and waited.

He might have been waiting for a sign, an omen, any signal that his efforts, his belief in man, would have brought off a response of a similar nature. Most men would bet against him.

Kirkness stayed in his place, giving his horse a bit of water, watching for the evening star to give promise of night, hoping one harsh day would lead into one of clearer comfort and ease. Man, at his labors, at his wars, whatever the causes and the reasons, needed his rest. He clearly wanted his. This business he was into, the adventure in a new land, this liaison with a trusting owner like Oliver Weddle, had come like a reward to him, even though the costs might be high. He again hoped for the best in man, as he had often seen the worst in man … on both sides of the fray.

It was at first a small illumination that came to him in the wavering shadows, from north of him, from where they were planning to drive the herd, right through country inhabited by Cherokee or Cheyenne or Arapaho. He could not tell the difference from one to the other if they stood in front of him at parade rest, but assured himself that they were as different as Gurkhas and Sikhs standing in the same formation, under the same colors.

The illumination grew, brightened, came on the obvious rise of a small hill hidden in darkness. It was, he knew, a signal, for the Indians could have gotten a lot closer to him. In the morning, he assured himself, other signs would be evident.

He hoped he had made peace for the time being.

He would like to do the job right for Oliver Weddle; trust was always part of his duties.

Beside the wagon, under the light of stars, the former Dragoon slept a deserved sleep.

Silas shook him awake. “Boss, coffee’s up, biscuits on, shift change.” And in a most condescending tone, said, “It looks quiet out there ‘n’ all the way back toward the risin’ sun ‘n’ clear through to Montana up in front of us I’da bet.” It was an affirmation of what the old soldier had done the night before.

Kirkness, with soldier skills still working his system, changed his socks, pulled on his boots in preparation for his day. When he rinsed his used socks and hung them on a pin on the wagon, he spotted the dried blood of the wounded Indian on the spokes of a wagon wheel and thought of the flames from the night before. “There, he said lightly, was enough light for all of us.”

Again, as it had so often happened, his whole life passed in quick review, as if a silent bugle had summoned his thoughts. “Call to Colors” came to him and “Reveille” and other bugle calls that were locked into his system. He remembered, coming this way, arriving at this place, the morning he walked through West Point and felt the ramrod spiking up his back. The military in him would, even in separation, carry him through. It had made him the man he was.

Oliver Weddle, of course, finished off the story as it had begun with him. Time and time again, in all his meetings with old friends and old comrades, in saloons, at card tables, at the spiked bowl at a now-and-then barn dance, said always that “Branwell Kirkness, late of His Royal Majesty’s 6th Inniskilling Dragoons Cavalry Regiment, is the best herd driver I’ve ever known, the toughest man I’ve ever met, and the most trustworthy man that ally and foe can possibly know.”

He told them all that Kicking Horse, a son of a Comanche chief, had cleared the way for Kirkness’s herds for three years in a row. Not a shot was fired, not a cow was lost, though other drivers had their problems.

“The man’s a soldier no matter what he wears,” was often the way he said goodnight.

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Tom Sheehan served in 31st Infantry Regt., Korea, 1951-52 and graduated from Boston College in 1956. Books are This Rare Earth & Other Flights, 2003; Epic Cures, 2005, and Brief Cases, Short Spans, Press 53; A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, 2005, Pocol Press. He has 19 Pushcart nominations, in Dzanc Best of the Web 2009, 315 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine, work in 5 issues of Rosebud Magazine, 5 issues of The Linnet’s Wings and 8 issues of Ocean Magazine, and other online/print sites, including Nervous Breakdown, Faith-Hope-Fiction, Subtle Tea, Nontrue, Danse Macabre, Jake’s Locked-Room Anthology, Deep South Magazine, The Best of Sand Hill Review anthology, The Copperfield Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Dew on the Kudzu, Slice of Life, MGVersion2datura, 3 A.M. Magazine, Literary Orphans, Nazar Look, and Qarrtsiluni, etc. His newest eBooks from Milspeak Publishers are Korean Echoes, 2011 and The Westering, 2012, the latter nominated for a National Book Award by the publisher.

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