artwork by @babyboyjw
a short story by Jerry Zinn
Sam let out a grunt, grabbing his left shoulder in pain. His cream color shirt was dripping in the maraschino blood seeping steadily from the fresh bullet wound. He tore off his sleeve and tied it around the injury to help stem the bleeding while using his leg to straighten himself up against the corner of the adobe walls, spurs jingling on the heels of his life-beaten leather boots.
“Poetic, isn’t it?” The words came from below and behind a distant wall. Sam flashed a quick glance around the edge from his perch, holed up in the bell tower of the white washed Spanish church of St. Sebastian. A bullet took a chunk from the edge of the structure near his face and threw some plaster dust into his eyes, causing him to recoil. In the brief look, Sam was able to discern where the sheriff and his two deputies were settled.
“Sunday Sam,” the sheriff continued, “picked a church for his last stand, and on Sunday afternoon no less. It’s almost like the good Lord planned it. You’ve knocked off eight banks from here to the Mississippi, and you’ve still got the audacity to show up in church every week. I can’t quite figure if you’re a God-fearing man or if you think weekly service somehow absolves you of your sins. Well I’m done chasing you, Sunday. You’re only leaving that church one of two ways: walking out in handcuffs or in the box I had made up for ya. It’s up to you. There’s three of us and, at two guns a piece, that’s six barrels lookin’ for your head or your heart.”
Sam heard the sheriff but the message didn’t faze him. He pulled his revolvers from their holsters and slipped out the bullets from his belt to fill them. The wooden handles had crosses carved deep like crevasses, something he’d done over a bottle of whiskey one lonely night in Nevada. A fine job he thought, professional-like. With his uninjured arm, Sam reached for his hat, a light brown wide-brim decorated with sweat stains and the same dust that filled his lungs.
He leaned forward and affixed it to his head, mopping the moisture from his forehead with his remaining sleeve. Even in the seclusion of the tower, the sun was inescapable, branding the drenched arm hairs to his skin. Without looking, Sam pointed one of the revolvers through an opening and took a shot, a puff of smoke quickly dissolving in the dry breeze. He counted eight blasts of return fire, and by the sound he could tell none of the men were any closer to the church.
Convinced of his momentary safety, Sam reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a cigar, damp with perspiration but still dry enough to light. He struck a match on the hardened mud and took a deep draw, the tip curling to accept the flame. As he smoked, Sam looked at the large bell hanging above, its thick rope dangling to the ground. The bell was simple but large, a cast bronze with the year of its installation fastened to the side in raised numbers: 1817. His teeth dug into the end of the cigar, freeing a bit of the tobacco, which he fished for with his tongue and spat onto the planks under his soles. In spite of the predicament, Sam was calm, and his mind drifted. He wondered how heavy the bell was and how many men it took to raise it up.
“Hell of a time for a smoke, Sunday!” the sheriff called out with a chuckle. A sly smirk worked its way across Sam’s face. He took a drag and tilted his head back, opening up so the smoke could scale to the roof and dissipate. Then he tossed the cigar out the tower, and a few shots fired. It was a good sign, Sam thought. They were nervous.
“Well? What do you say, Sunday? You don’t want the next time you go to church to be for your own funeral, do you?” There was impatience in the sheriff’s voice. Sam yawned, scratching his bristled neck and grasping the red bandana at his throat.
“How tall are you, sheriff?” Sam yelled.
“What’s that?” the sheriff replied, confused.
“Just wonderin’ if I’m taller than you.”
“What difference does that make?”
“I was just thinking we could put you in that coffin you had made. No reason it should go to waste.”
“I didn’t realize you had a considerate side, Sunday.”
“Sheriff, if you think I’m gonna surrender myself to you, you’re even more of a God damn fool than most in your profession. And about every one I’ve met I’ve turned to dust.”
“You should be more careful with your language son. You are in church after all.”
Sam stood up and kept his back glued to the corner, wincing at the sharp, throbbing shoulder pain. “Why don’t you and your boys join me? The service is about to start,” he teased.
“Joe,” the sheriff whispered, “you head up to the well quickly. Abe and I’ll cover you.” Joe looked back skeptically.
“You sure?” Joe asked.
“Look, Sunday’s not budging. Our only chance is to get into the church, so we got to get over there in stages. Now we’ll cover you. Just keep low and try to be swift and quiet about it,” the sheriff responded. Joe’s insecurities remained as he looked over the wall and saw the well halfway between the church and his refuge. Back in the tower, Sam was considering his options. He knew he couldn’t go down; his shoulder was done for, unable support the weight to lower himself.
Joe inched around the corner of the wall and, gripping his rifle tightly, he bent over and shuffled towards the distant stone watering hole. Sam crouched down and extended for the rope, giving it a strong tug. The bell rang out loudly as it swayed, the large clapper inside clanging against the cast frame. The sheriff and Abe fired a few shots each and Joe froze where he was, panicky eyes set on the tower and its swaying mechanism.
Sam took a breath, raised both of his revolvers, and turned the corner to see Joe stuck in no man’s land. Faster than any of the three law-enforcers could think, Sam fired a shot from each pistol at Joe and ducked to the other side as the replies whizzed by.
“Joe?” the sheriff called out. When no response came, he peeked over and saw Joe lying motionless on the ground, his head an unappetizing bowl of ground meat. “God damn it. Joe’s dead,” he said. The color flushed out of Abe’s face when he heard the words, and it fell to his toes when he got a look for himself. Sam stealthily glanced at his handiwork.
“It’s too bad about Joe, sheriff. Why don’t you and your other little friend go home now while you still have each other,” Sam said, loading more bullets into the rotaries. “Maybe order a bottle of hooch and hold hands.”
“You’re going straight to hell when I’m through with you, Sunday!” the sheriff yelled.
“That’s quite a prophecy, preacher,” Sam replied. “Didn’t know you were ordained.”
The sheriff turned to Abe and motioned with his head for Abe to try where their comrade had failed. Abe shook his head in refusal, his shock over Joe’s demise still fresh on his sunken cheeks. The sheriff read Abe’s expression and loosened his lips.
“We’ll both go at the same time,” he said, which seemed to settle Abe. Sam let out a deep breath and closed his eyes, cocking back the hammers on the nickel-plated guns in effortless synchronization. A piece of leftover cigar made its presence known in the back of his mouth, and he chewed it a little, extracting the peppery spice from its fibers. Almost as quickly as his bullets, Sam darted across the opening, saw the sheriff and his remaining deputy, and fired. One of the bullets struck the bucket hanging above the well, and water gushed out the hole. The other shot caught Abe in the neck, and he collapsed to the ground. The sheriff threw himself against the stones of the well and looked back at his fallen deputy. Abe gripped at his wound, but the sheriff recognized there was nothing either man could do. He knew his partner would bleed out in a matter of seconds. The sheriff sat still as a boulder, watching helplessly as he lost his second man of the day.
The sting in Sam’s shoulder was intensifying, and the sensation radiated. Blood was coming through the makeshift bandage, and he knew he needed to end the standoff soon and find a way to get himself medical attention if he was to stay out of the made-to-measure coffin.
“You’re going to have to be speedier than that, sheriff.”
“Those were two good men, Sunday. Your body count’s not going to help you where you’re going.”
“Good men? Good at what?”
The sheriff stood up slowly and pointed his rifle at the bell. He didn’t respond to Sam’s jab. He remained focused. For the first time, fear sent chills over Sam’s body, a strange freeze in the hot New Mexico summer. The sensation was foreign, and he almost didn’t recognize it. Since it was one of the few things he’d never experienced, he was able to identify it by process of elimination, knowing, for example, that he hadn’t just fallen in love. His palms secreted sweat and loosened their hold on the cross-embellished handles. With the tip of a barrel, he pushed up on the brim of his hat and let it fall behind.
“You’ve made your decision,” the sheriff said without flinching, the intensity of his words weighing uncomfortably on Sam’s ears.
“There’s only one way you’re leaving that church now: sealed up in a pine envelope.”
“Envelope? Well I’m not much for writing, and I damn sure ain’t much for dying.”
Sam prepared himself for one more move. He took a deep breath in and out and said, “It’s been a real pleasure getting to know you over the years, sheriff. I’ll be sure to lay a flower by your gravestone.” Immediately after he finished speaking, Sam turned, and three shots went off. One of Sam’s bullets hit the sheriff in the leg, the other struck the dirt, and the force of the sheriff’s shot threw Sunday Sam back toward the bell. As he fell down the tower, Sam reached for the rope, and when he struck the ground, the bell tolled.
“I hate flowers,” the sheriff said to the audience of emptiness, grabbing his leg and hobbling toward the church, the bell still singing its somber song. He threw open the doors and stumbled into the aisle, a simple wooden crucifix hanging nobly on the altar. The sheriff looked to his left and saw Sunday Sam on the ground, head turned the other way, rope still swinging above his body. As the sheriff made his way over with labored steps he could hear the sounds of several horses riding in from the distance. It was his backup, conveniently and substantially tardy. Slowly, Sam’s head rolled over to face the sheriff. Sam looked him straight in the eyes and winked with his last exhale.
“Sheriff? You all right?” one of the men said as he dismounted and entered the church.
“Yeah, I just got shot in the leg. I’ll go see Doc Otto first thing. I guess you saw we’re going to need to more coffins out here?”
“What about Sunday Sam?”
The sheriff pointed his nose to the lifeless body and added dryly, “Sunday Sam got his last rights.”