Downcast

Andy stood in the shade of the bunkhouse porch and looked out at the parched scrub. No rain again. He hated the badlands, and the sun bleached prickly pear and milkweed only left him feeling more disheartened. He pulled off his hat and wiped his forearm across his sweaty brow.

He was a downcast, unrepentant rye drinker with bony arms and spindly legs stuffed into threadbare jeans not long enough to cover the snakeskin boots he had won and worn for fifteen years, third prize at some local bull riding event. But despite his rough exterior, all straight lines and jagged edges, those who knew Andy saw him as a Homeric figure. A wanderer with a heart for home. Once he had brought a Gila monster back from the brink of death only to shoot it for skittering his horse. That’s the sort of man he was.

Andy walked to the trough and worked the pump handle but all he could achieve were a few gurgling splatters of dirty water. He wiped his brow again and reflected on his surroundings. The sun shone like a blistering fever.

Then he saw something in the distance, or rather someone. It was the mounted figure of Red Dumfries approaching from the direction of Dry Creek, a swirl of dust trailed wispily in his wake.

Red was grizzled and childlike, worn down from years in the high west. Slow to anger and long to forget.

Andy returned to the shade of the bunkhouse porch and settled on a low pine stool like a vulture marking the distant traveler’s slow progress. He was not prepared for Red.

Andy rose slowly to his feet as Red brought his horse to stop by the porch rail. “Any sign of rain?”

“Naw, and it’s worse than that,” replied Red.

“How so?” Andy asked.

“Injuns on the move.” Red’s fractured grin belied his concern. “Iroquois, I think.”

Andy removed his hat and scratched his head. “That don’t sound geographically accurate Red. Iroquois is out by the eastern Great Lakes, a thousand miles from here if it’s a foot.”

“Injuns is Injuns.” Red spit a brown tobacco stain into the dirt.

The two men stared at each other awkwardly, like two teenagers at cotillion, searching for the beat of the western swing music playing in the background. Nobody dancing. Everyone wanting to dance.

“Damn it Andy,” stammered Red, breaking the silence. “All I ever wanted was respect.”

Andy looked up, regarding Red’s disheveled appearance and slouched posture, leaning heavily on his saddle horn. He looked away briefly, searching for the correct response. “I… I feel the same way Red.”

Red looked jealous, his emotions blushing like a cautious curried cactus.

Andy forced a smile. “Don’t fret Red, I reckon things will sort themselves out. Indians and all.” Turning, he walked into the bunkhouse, reappearing with a bottle and two glasses. “How’s ‘bout a nice shot of Rye?”

The End.                                                                                                                      Copyright 2019

Some Things Never Change

Rat

Al crawled up the inside of the drain pipe, hurried along the gutter and made his way into the hole beneath a loose asphalt shingle above aluminum flashing.  The bar was busy tonight.  A Walkman blared tinny music from ear-buds suspended in the rafters and several rats gyrated in synchronized rhythm on the make-shift dance floor.  Al looked to the bar where Tony sat hunched over a thimble full of stale beer, slouching on his stool, his long leathery tail drooping to the floor.  He made his way over to the laminated popsicle-stick bar-top and took a thread spool beside his friend.

“How’s it wigglin?” he inquired with a good natured grin and gentle slap on Tony’s back.

“Eh…,” Tony responded without much enthusiasm.

“Oh, oh.” Al had seen Tony in this kind of mood before.  “What’s up buddy, Agnes again?” Al ordered a beer for himself.

His companion looked up.  Tony’s nose twitched sending his long whiskers into a frenzy. “I swear to God Al, I just can’t please her. If it’s not one thing it’s another.  She’s always busting my balls.”

“He heh…,” sniggered Al. “…and that ain’t easy. You got some pretty hefty balls.”

Tony chuckled half heartedly and repositioned himself on his spool.

The gerbil behind the counter handed Al his order.  After a long slow draught, Al wiped his paw across his muzzle and asked with some resignation, “Well, what is it this time?”

Tony paused, looked at Al, and turned to stare once more into his beer.  “I ate two of the kids.” he responded somewhat sheepishly.

Al’s beer spewed from his mouth, spraying the gerbil full in the face. “Sorry Mac.” Al apologized.  The bartender toweled his face dry, all the while complaining mightily under his breath.

“Geez Tone, not again!”

Tony groaned.  “I know, I know,” he complained.  “But, yah know…,” he struggled for the words.  “I’m out here every night, scurrying around in sewers for any moldy morsel I can find, scouring back alleys and dumpsters for a lousy piece of cheese, and then I come home to a rat-hole full of 75 kids and Agnes…”

“Seventy-three kids!” Al corrected him,

“Yah! Now!” Tony admitted reluctantly. “I swear, all I want at the end of a hard night is to sit back, put my paws up, have a God damn beer and relax for five minutes without six dozen rug-rats crawlin’ all over me.” Tony’s arms fell to his side as he threw back his head and exclaimed, “And now I find out, there’s another litter on the way!”  Tony slumped forward again and returned to whatever comfort he hoped to find at the bottom of his beer.

At that exact moment, Paul Anka’s “Having my Baby” crackled onto the over head speakers.

Ignoring the ironic musical interlude, Al placed a sympathetic paw on Tony’s shoulder. “C’mon Tone, cheer up.  Aggie will forgive you.  What’s two rats outta …” he did a silent calculation relative to current progeny and average litter size, “…eighty plus kids?”

Tony shrugged.

“Agnes loves you, no matter how many kids you eat.”

Tony was not to be consoled.

Al continued in an effort to comfort his friend. “You know Big Carl… you know him…. the big dock-rat that comes into O’Malley’s?”  Tony nodded weakly as Al continued.  “I heard he ate a whole litter of his kids after he got off the boat from his last cruise, and in a matter of weeks he and his old lady were knockin’ out a brand new brood.”  Al’s two sharp front teeth glistened in the neon bar-light as he attempted to smile away Tony’s sour mood.

Tony turned to Al, brightened by the thought of Big Carl’s more serious infraction.  “Yah know, Agnes and I’ve been together for over eight months, the best months of our lives.  We’ve been through a lot.”

Al took another drink, nodding in agreement. “That’s the ticket. You guys were made for each other”

“She’ll get over it.” Tony’s disposition was definitely improving. “I know she loves me.  And I love her too.”

“Sure you do.” offered Al.  “Let’s have another beer to celebrate your renewed dedication to each other.”

Tony thought about it for a moment,”Nah…The sun’s coming up and I’m going home to tell Agnes I love her.  She’ll take me back.”

Tony and Al shared a glance and Al winked. “She always does Tone.  She always does.”

Tony smiled his best rat smile.  “It’s been a long night.  I’m going home grab a bite then crawling into the mattress with Agnes.”

“A bite?” asked a genuinely concerned Al.

Tony tipped his cap and made his way to the hole in the shingle, “Don’t worry buddy, only cheese for me tonight… nothing but cheese.”

Identical Sins

Detective Abernathy perched on the edge of the leather ottoman, staring in amazement at the most perfectly identical twins he had ever seen in his life.  Attractive brunettes in their mid-forties, they sat close on an expensive sofa, holding hands, exchanging nervous glances and stealing occasional brief looks at the portly middle aged man, dead in the doorway.

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“Now… let me get this straight,” the detective questioned, “You’re saying you’re both Mrs. Roberts?”  His head inclined only the slightest degree, indicating the deceased.

“Well, technically…” began the sister on the left, “… Millie’s married to Carl, but we both, eh…that is, we… took turns… playing the part of wife!”

“But Margaret never had sex with Carl.”  The sister on the right added quickly, as if this detail somehow made the arrangement more appropriate. “Isn’t that right dear?”

“That’s right Millie.” replied the twin.  “Just as we agreed.”

The Detective eyed them curiously.  “And how exactly, did this…” he struggled for the precise word, “…relationship, work?

“Well…” Margaret continued, “…we’ve been swapping places for years, even as children.”  She straightened her blouse nervously. “Whenever Millie or I got tired, or bored with a situation, we would swap.  I’d take her place and she’d take mine.”  Millie sat silently but nodded in agreement. “It was always really quite easy, only mother could tell us apart.”

Abernathy stared at them in wonder.  Their similarities were amazing.  As he sat before the sisters, finding it impossible to distinguish any difference between them at all.

“So you would periodically swap places, taking turns at being the deceased’s spouse?  Living together for weeks or months, then just exchange your lives”

Millie spoke up. “Yes, it worked out wonderfully for us. Whenever we wanted a change, we’d just meet up and… exchange.”

“But surely, your… eh…husband…” Abernathy took quick turns looking from one sister to the other. “Surely, he noticed some incongruities in behavior.  I mean your physical similarities are incredible, but your daily interactions, your on-going conversations, your unique personalities, there must have been inconsistencies… your husband would notice?”

“Oh yes,” Margaret resumed, “…it was an endless source of frustration for Carl.  He never could figure it out.  I like roses while Millie prefers orchids.  Millie loves the Opera, while I detest it.  There were a thousand different little things that left him confused.” Margaret looked to her sister for support. “But I believe we treated him wonderfully, despite our little deception.”

The detective adjusted his tie slowly before proceeding. “And tonight?”

“It all happened so quickly.” Millie interjected.  “Carl returned home early.  We weren’t expecting him until tomorrow.  We didn’t even hear him come in.  We were just sitting here talking and then heard a gasp from the doorway, there.”  Millie pointed to the deceased and buried her face in her hands.

“He just grabbed his chest and fell over.” Margaret finished.

Abernathy struggled to comprehend the twin’s casual attitude towards the whole situation.  “I can see how it would be a tremendous shock for a man to discover that his wife was literally two different people.  He gathered his composure, trying to recover his professional disposition.  “Relationships are difficult under normal circumstances, but surely you can understand how seeing you both together would be a shock!”  The sisters tightened their grip on each other.

Abernathy continued.  “Of course I’m no doctor or psychiatrist, but it’s not hard for me to see how your husband may have had a physical or psychological reaction to this…this… discovery!  It’s enough to drive a person insane.”

“Yes, we know.” cried Millie.  “That’s what happened to poor Randolph.”

“Randolph!  You mean you’ve carried out this deception on another man?” Abernathy was incredulous.

“Well four to be precise!” exclaimed Margaret. “Randolph in the State Sanatorium.  Malcolm – suicide.  And Vernon ran off with a Hawaiian girl.”

“Polynesian!” Millie corrected.

Abernathy sat stunned, taking it all in.  His cell phone vibrated in his pocket.

“Excuse me.” he apologized, glancing at his phone.  “It’s downtown.  I won’t be a moment.”

“How’s it going out there?” questioned the Police Chief on the other end of the call.

Abernathy walked to the far end of the room.  “I’m not sure if there’s been a crime.  But I have a lot of questions about what’s going on at my house.”