Courage

Fiction

“He won’t do it.  He’s yella’.”
“Sure he will, just you watch.”
“Na.  He’s just like his ol’ man. Yella’ through n’ through.”
Jack and Albert continued the debate over Tommy’s character past the edge of town and beyond the tree line that marked the beginning of the Rocky Mountain foothills to the southwest.  
“Or…” Jack said, finally.  He stopped and wiped his brow, then he bent slightly to put his hands on his knees.
“Or what?”
“We should go back and get Susie Jenkins.  That dope’ll do anything when she’s around” Jack declared.
“Oooh,” replied Albert. “That’s a good idea.” 
Tommy watched from a thicket of underbrush thirty yards from where his two classmates had stopped.  He’d heard the boys as soon as they’d reached the tree line.  They moved as noisily as the bison herds.  Twigs breaking, pine needles shuffling, their voices, their breathing.  They had no clue how to be subtle, he thought.  Tommy was good at staying quiet. Staying hidden.  He was on his way to his secret spot in the woods – the place he knew he could escape to – when he heard their voices over the ridge.  At first he thought they were bandits, but when he recognized Jack’s high-pitched, nasally voice, his heart sank.  Bandits would’ve been better.  
Jack and Albert had made a career out of giving Tommy Driscoll hell.  Every day was some new torment, but the theme was always his father and cowardice.  Tommy would’ve fought back, but he knew it wouldn’t earn him any friends, and he’d still be the outsider, so he really didn’t see much use in that.  He’d heard all of the stories.  If it didn’t come from Jack and Albert directly, then he overheard it throughout the town.  The most prevalent one was that his father, John Driscoll, was an army deserter who’d survived the battle of Little Big Horn and funded the bank he ran in town with money he stole from the Army.  Tommy knew that his father was in the Seventh Cavalry before they moved to Montana, but when his father had returned from the war he was a different person.  Something in the new, soft-spoken, and meek way his father carried himself told Tommy not to ask about the Army.  The people in town, on the other hand, were more than happy to speculate on John’s experience as a soldier.  They didn’t trust him – hell, the man wouldn’t even look you in the eye when he shook your hand – but he ran the only bank for miles around, so they mostly kept their opinions and gossip out of his earshot.
Tommy kept watching as the two bullies turned around, presumably to go and fetch Susie. He waited until the boys were out of sight and earshot, then he withdrew from the thicket and resumed his trek toward his spot.  He didn’t know what they had planned, but he knew that if he hid well enough, they might lose interest before it was time for him to do his chores at the bank.
Tommy’s “spot” was actually more like a dominion – a place where he felt safe and in control.  He followed a game trail up to the top of a ridge, beyond which was a canyon system created by gargantuan granite boulders.  Sometimes Tommy would sit on top of one of the mammoth rock structures and look at the other boulders, imagining they were animals.  The tall one across the canyon looked like a perched eagle standing watch.  There were a couple of smaller ones at the bottom of the canyon that, due to the way they lay together and the angle of Tommy’s vantage, resembled, he thought, a fat beaver waiting for the drainage bed that made up the canyon floor to fill with water once more so it could be dammed.  Jack and Albert, Tommy suspected, must have seen him up there before – though he was somewhat bewildered as to how his ears would have failed to detect them.  It doesn’t matter, he thought, as he made his way up the ridge.  There was a trail next to a towering boulder at the front of the formation that led down to the canyon floor.  It was almost impossible to see the trail from the main game trail that led up from the ridge.  At the bottom, Tommy had found a network of caves that he had claimed as part of his kingdom.  He would hide down there, he decided, until his tormenters returned.  His hope was that the boys would get bored when they couldn’t find him and he could slip back into town before his father expected him at the bank. 
He reached the top of the ridge and walked out onto the boulder.  He carefully shimmied down the right side and onto the hidden trail.  The bank down into the canyon was steep, so he sidestepped and used trees and saplings for balance and stability.  When he reached the bottom, he turned back to reconnoiter the ridge line.  He heard the crackle of dead pine needles behind him and turned around just in time to see the butt of a Colt Peacemaker as it made contact with his forehead.

***
A couple of hours later, at closing time, John Driscoll began to worry.  Tommy was late.  It wasn’t like the boy to skip out on his chores without a word.  He stood at the bank window and looked down the thoroughfare, expecting to see his son running toward him any moment.
“Still no sign of ‘im, Mr. Driscoll?” 
Amos, his teller, standing behind the counter with a look of obligatory pseudo-concern.  Amos had worked for Driscoll for nearly a year, and he liked him well enough, but it was nearly impossible to keep the rumors from coloring his opinion of his employer.  He liked the pay, and for that he minded his manners around Driscoll, but he wasn’t close enough to the man to be able to muster any genuine sympathy.  After all, the kid was as soft as his old man, and Amos wouldn’t have been surprised if it turned out Tommy’d gotten lost and ended up in the woods with a broken leg, or been eaten by a bear, or become the victim of any number of other misfortunes that tended to befall the unprepared eastern transplant in this country.
“No.” John answered.  “Say, Amos, I’m going to need you to close up for me.”
“Of course,” Amos replied, a thin smile pursing on his lips.  He turned to go about his task, then paused and looked at John.  “I’m sure he’s just playing around with some of the other boys,” he said.  “He knows a boy like himself oughtn’t stray too far in country like this.”  He shook his head and carried the cash drawer back to the counting room. 
John looked at the floor and nodded.  At that moment, the anxiety that had been heating up inside him from a dark and visceral place turned into an ember.  He left the bank and walked hurriedly to the north end of the thoroughfare where his house sat at the top of a knoll, overlooking the town.  He ascended the front steps to where his wife, Clara, was waiting for him on the porch. 
“Has he come in?” she asked her husband.
“No.” John replied, his head and eyes unconsciously scanning the horizon.
“Well we must do something,” she said, the pitch and urgency in her voice rising.  “This just isn’t like him.”
“No,” John said, eyeballing the tree line past their house and vaguely remember the last thing that Amos had said.  “It’s not.  I think it’d be best if I alerted the sheriff.”
***
Tommy moaned.  He could feel the crusted blood on what must have been a huge knot above his right eye.  That would explain the headache.  He looked at his immediate surroundings to see if he could figure out where he was.  It was dark, but there was flickering light and the aroma of a smoking pinewood fire.  He tried to sit up and realized from the clank that his hands and feet had been manacled.  Then he finally sensed that he had been laying on the cold, wet rock of the cave floor.  He wiggled some more and finally sat up.
“Good morning, sunshine.”  The deep, raspy voice had come from the shadows on the other side of the fire.  A figure that was unmistakably the visual representation of the voice Tommy had just heard leaned forward.  The light from the fire provided an eerie glint to mark the whites of the eyes, but other than that, all Tommy saw was a silhouette.  The silhouette seemed large, with shaggy hair and the clear-cut shape of a trail-worn Stetson on top of the head.  The figure raised its arm and looked to be picking its teeth with its fingers, then it spat toward the fire pit.
“Who are you?” Tommy asked.
“Boo!” the figure said, with a sinister chuckle.  “Maybe I’m a ghost.  Maybe…” he paused, “I’m the devil himself.” 
“Ghosts don’t spit.”  Tommy said.
“Ha!” the figure roared.  “Well, you’re prob’ly right about that.”  He picked his teeth, then continued.  “Na.  I ain’t a ghost.  Name’s Malcolm, and you’re Tommy.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Mmm,” Malcolm said, spitting again. “Well, Tommy, I know a lot about you.  I know a lot about your pa, too.”  He leaned forward, his face staying just outside the light.  “For instance,” he continued, “I know yer pa was in the Army.”  He rubbed his chin and Tommy could here the interaction between Malcolm’s fingers and what must have been a shadow of stubble on his face.  “I was in the Army, too,” he continued.  “So was my brother.”  Malcolm cleared his throat, and paused a moment longer.  “But that’s another story,” he said.  “What’s more important is that I know yer pa’s got money in that there bank.  Now where d’ya s’pose an Army corporal comes up with the money ta start a bank? Hmm?”  Tommy sat in silence regarding the man. “Was yer daddy rich before the army?”
“He won’t let you take anything!” The words came out of Tommy’s mouth in an automatic onslaught.  He didn’t believe a syllable of what he was saying, but somewhere deep inside him, a primal need to puff himself, or, at least, his father, up kicked in and it sounded like genuine conviction in his voice.
The silhouette scoffed. “Well… That ain’t what I hear.”  
        The primal indignation grew inside Tommy, and before his sensible side knew what he was doing, he lunged forward until the manacles dug into his wrists, and he spat at Malcolm’s face.  He heard the saliva connect with what he imagined was the silhouette’s cheek.  The figure didn’t recoil, or move at all, really.  Instead, Malcolm slowly reached up and wiped his cheek with the sleeve of his duster, then he sighed.
Tommy had just enough time to recognize the object Malcolm had picked up as a cast iron pan that had been sitting over the fire.  Then there was a moment of searing hot pain and blunt force shock on his left cheek, ear, and temple.  The right side of his head then hit the rocks of the cave floor.  For an instant, he smelled singed flesh and hair, and then he fell unconscious.  
***
“Are you sure he’s not just out pokin’ around?” Sheriff Walter Beacon asked John.
“Sheriff, you’ve seen him.  He comes to the bank after school every day – never misses – you know that!” John was doing his best to keep his composure, but the more questions Walter asked, the more the panic-ember in John’s guts started to glow.  “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I know something’s wrong.  Shouldn’t we be gathering some men and riding out to look for him?”
Walter sighed, marveling slightly at a man who would ask for a posse after only a couple of hours.  “Slow down just a second,” he said, putting his hands on his hips and glancing out the window at his son Jack, and Jack’s friend Albert walking down the thoroughfare.  “Boys!” Walter beckoned.  “Boys, get in here.”
Jack and Albert ran up the wooden steps and into the sheriff’s office.  They snapped to attention like two Army scouts.  “Yes, Pa?” Jack reported.
“You boys seen Tommy Driscoll about today?”
“No, Pa.  Actually, we was just lookin’ for ‘im ta see if he wanted to play a game with us.” Jack did all the talking, and Albert was almost able to keep a straight face.  “We seen ‘im headin’ for the woods on the western end of town.  We went out there a bit later, but we couldn’t find ‘im ’n we headed back.”  John felt the panic-ember in his abdomen glow bright red.  His knuckles went white with tension, and his teeth clenched and ground down so hard he heard his jaw pop.  He knew those two boys were constantly giving Tommy hell.  If they had anything to do with…  No.  He couldn’t lose it here.  He needed the sheriff to find Tommy.  There would be time to deal with the boys later.  His white knuckles turned bright red as he released the tension, and his jaw popped again as he unclenched his teeth.
“Sheriff, he could be hurt, or…?”  He couldn’t finish that thought.  He looked at Walter imploringly.
“I’ll see if I can get some men, John, and we’ll find him.  Meet me back here in half an hour.”  Walter replied.  John nodded and risked a glance at the two wretched boys still standing at attention in front of Walter.  He took another deep breath and headed back out to the thoroughfare.  
***
Every nerve-ending in Tommy’s face wailed in agony.  He had no idea how long he’d been knocked out this time, but the stench of singed hair and flesh was all but gone, so he figured it had been a while.  He tried to sit up, and with each tiny movement of his head, the burns on his cheek and temple went into an agonizing tirade.  When he finally did swing himself back up off of the cave floor, he noticed something even more troubling.  He was very dizzy, and his vision was blurry.
“I was never gonna be nice to you, kid.  But I coulda’ been decent.  Then ya’ spat on me.  That was mighty disrespectful, and I will be respected.  Hell, you wasn’t even part a’ the plan.  But I found you here and now I got you in chains and I think that’s worthy of a little goddamn respect. Otherwise, all your gonna get from me is rotten.”
Tommy kneeled on the cold, damp cave floor shuddering, regarding Malcolm’s words.  His whole body reeled from his injuries, and his breathing was labored and painful.  He wasn’t consciously aware of it, but somewhere inside he could almost admire Malcolm’s swift and violent reaction to his earlier act of defiance.  There was something so visceral about it, so…  He coughed a little.
“Still…” Malcolm continued, “at least ya showed some fight.  Maybe y’ ain’t a chicken-shit like yer good f’nothin’ pa.”
“Why are you doing this?”  Tommy asked.  
“All in good time, my boy.”  Malcolm said.
***
Precisely half an hour after he’d left Walter’s office, John Driscoll returned and hitched his horse to the post outside.  He’d managed to convince Amos to join the search for his son.  In a few minutes, Walter rode up from the saloon with Harry, the barkeep, and Cole, a hardware merchant who spent more time in the saloon than in his shop.  
“Is this all we have?” John asked with a sigh, knowing somehow that his reputation around town wouldn’t have garnered much sympathy.
“Five men should be enough ta find yer boy,” Walter replied, thinking to himself that if John was worth anything he’d have checked the woods himself before imposing on others.
“Well then I’m grateful,” John said.  “I think I may know where we should start, and I’d like to get to it before we burn much more daylight.”
We gonna check yer safe?  He thought he heard under somebody’s breath.  The panic-ember caught a rush of air and the red heat expanded throughout John’s abdomen.  He snapped his head up and looked each of the men in the eye, gritting his teeth. 
“Well let’s go if we’re goin’,” said Harry, a gruff man who didn’t mince words, after a tense pause.  “I didn’t close up just to go find a hunk o’ bear bait.”
Harry’s tactless metaphor redirected John’s focus to the danger his son could be in.  He turned his horse toward the edge of town and started off.  Harry, Walter, and the other men looked at each other for a moment, then tapped their spurs and followed John.  Dust rose up from the hooves of five horses carrying the five riders toward the woods.
***
“Time to get up,” Tommy’s assailant said.  “By now yer pa’s prob’ly lookin’ fer ya.  What say we go let ‘im know how we been gettin’ on.”
Tommy finally caught his breath and held out his shackled arms.  As Malcolm leaned in and began to unlock the manacles, Tommy whispered, “My dad’s gonna’ kill you, and you’re not gonna’ get anything.”  Malcolm stopped what he was doing, looked down, and shook his head slightly. 
The bandit sighed.  Calmly, slowly, he grabbed Tommy’s left pinky finger and bent it backward.  Tommy’s scream was deafening, but both he and his assailant still heard the crack of the tendons and bone over the top of the wailing.  “See now, you look like yer hurtin’.  I know yer pa ain’t much of a man, but yella’ or not, fathers love their sons.  Now we both know he won’t do the right thing and shoot me on the spot, but he will hand over that money if ‘e sees you hurt.”  Even through the agony of his broken and throbbing finger, Tommy was again struck by how brutally and decisively Malcolm had dealt with his little insurrection.  When his father was angry with him, he merely lectured sternly.  He’d never even raised his hand to Tommy since coming home from the Army.
“Now get up and get movin’.”  Malcolm ordered.  Tommy crawled up, carefully avoiding the use of his left hand.  Shivering with pain in his cold, damp clothes, he made his way out of the cave and into the thick woods beyond.  
When they exited the darkness into the relative light of the forest, Tommy got his first clear view of his tormenter.  Malcolm was tall and lean.  His clothes were filthy and trail-worn.  He wore two pistols on his hips, with extra ammunition stored in loops on his tooled leather belt.  The light shone on his clothing and effects, but the wide brim of his threadbare, grimy hat kept his face wrapped in shadow.  All Tommy could really make out was a field of coarse stubble on the chin and the tiniest glints from the whites of the Malcolm’s eyes.  Malcolm stared at Tommy the way a craftsman takes stock of his handiwork.  He expelled a wad of thick brown tobacco and said, “Now gimme yer hands.”
It took about a minute for Malcolm to tie Tommy’s hands to his horse’s saddle with some old rope.  Tommy noticed that though his hands were bound tightly, the other end of the rope was only secured by a loose square knot.  His breathing was labored and wheezy, and the rope was tight, but Tommy was using all of his will to stay calm.  “Now, let’s go and find out just how much yer pa loves you,” Malcolm said, and he began to lead Tommy and the horse up the game trail from the canyon floor.
***
John, Walter, and the other men had ridden well past the tree line and paused a moment.  They surveyed the ridge in front of them.  “I’ve heard there’s a boulder canyon past that ridge,” John said.  “Do you think he may have gone out there?”
“Hell,” Harry scoffed, “He could be anywhere out here.  Better hope he didn’t go that way, though.  It’s a long way down from them rocks.”  
“Well,” Walter said reluctantly, “we’d best go and check there first.”  
John imagined his son’s body lying on the floor of the canyon and the panic ember inside of him grew ever hotter.  He spurred his horse and continued toward the ridge.  Behind him, Cole shook his head, belched, and said, “That boy ain’t got a hope in hell.”  Walter nodded and he and the others began to follow John.
Just as they reached the top of the ridge the sharp report of a pistol shot echoed through the canyon.  The horses stirred and John struggled to hold the reins as he looked around for the direction of the shot.  To his right he saw Walter clutch his chest and double over as his horse bucked, throwing the sheriff to the ground, and ran off back toward town.  “Walter!” John cried, hopping off his horse.  The other men steadied their horses and rode up next to John, who had made it to Walter’s side.  Walter convulsed and coughed up blood, then lay motionless on the needle-littered forest floor.  
A sharp whistle came from halfway down the other side of the ridge.  John looked to see a man in shabby trail clothes lead a horse out from behind a smaller granite boulder.  His son followed closely, hands bound and tied to the horse’s saddle.  The man had a pistol trained on the boy’s head.  
“Ta hell with this!” Harry said.  “C’mon Cole.”  
“Yeah,” Cole said.  The two men spurred their horses vigorously and fled back toward town.  John looked on in amazement, then he looked at Amos, desperately hoping for some semblance of loyalty from his employee.  Amos looked at Walter and just shook his head for a moment.  “Sorry, Mr. Driscoll,” he said, finally.  “I’ve a family too.”  He whipped his horse’s hindquarters with the reins and sped off to catch up with the other men.  
“Why Corporal Driscoll,” Malcolm called up, almost snickering.  “My, what company you keep!  Why don’t you make yer way down here so’s we c’n have a chat?”  He paused for a moment, then added, “Oh, an’ go ‘head ’n leave yer guns up ‘ere.”
John raised his hands and stood up slowly.  
“That’s it,” Malcolm called.  “Careful, now.  It’s a bit treacherous comin’ down.”
Carefully, John sidestepped his way down the ridge toward Malcolm and Tommy, making sure to keep his hands in the air.  When he was within twenty yards, Malcolm told him to stop.  “Don’t hurt my son!” John called in a voice charred with the heat of the panic ember inside him.  
“Well,” Malcolm said, “that’s gonna depend on you, and on him.  Now you, I got figured, but yer boy’s shown some guts.  Nearly broke my poor heart ta have ta crack his skull for it.”  
John saw the wounds on Tommy’s face and the panic ember grew hotter still.
“What do you want from me?”  he asked, his voice quivering.  
“First, I’d like to introduce myself.”  Malcolm said. “My name is Malcolm Rousseau.”  A flash of recognition flushed through John’s face.  “That’s right,” Malcolm continued.  “I believe, Corporal Driscoll, that you served with my brother under Custer.  Does ‘at sound about right to you?”  Malcolm didn’t wait for a reply.  “Now, it’d been nice if he coulda’ been here so the two of you could catch up, but wouldn’t you know it, he died along with all them other poor bastards in the Seventh Cav.  All ‘cept you, that is.”  
Malcolm spat on the ground and began to lead Tommy and the horse toward John.  “Yup,” he said, “My brother’s dead.  And a no-good deserter like you’s alive.  Hell, once I shot the sheriff, I half expected you to run along after them other yella’ bastards ya brought with ya.”  He paused, now standing just a few feet from John, admiring the irony.  “But, it looks like even cowards love their sons.  So here’s how it is.  Way I see it, you owe me recompense for breathin’ the air my brother should be breathin’ right now.  I ain’t a picky man, so we can either go back to yer bank and you can give me every cent ya got, or I can take Tommy’s life.  I reckon I’ll be paid either way.”  Malcolm stared into John’s eyes for a long moment.  “So, Corporal Driscoll,” he said, finally, “How much do ya love yer son?”  
At that moment, the panic ember inside John caught fire and he couldn’t contain the rage anymore.  He lunged at Malcolm, wrapping up his trunk and tackling him.  On the way to the ground, Malcolm’s gun hand flung toward the sky and he fired a shot in the air before the pistol was knocked out of his hand.  The sudden commotion spooked his horse and it bolted with Tommy still tied to the saddle.  John and Malcolm tangled and rolled down the side of the ridge while the horse drug Tommy in a wide, arching semi-circle around the slope.  The horse bucked wildly and soon the loose square knot that had secured Tommy’s bound hands to the saddle came undone.  He rolled down the ridge and finally stopped about thirty feet from where his father and Malcolm were locked in primal battle.  As the two men wrestled each other, he noticed one of Malcolm’s revolvers on the ground between him and the struggle.  He began frantically trying to free his hands.
When the rolling stopped, John had ended up on top.  He struggled fiercely to get his hands around Malcolm’s throat, the panic inferno inside of him fueling his frenzy.  Malcolm reached for the other revolver in his belt, but John’s leg blocked his access.  He reached up instead and groped John’s face with open hands.  His thumbs found John’s eye sockets and he began to dig in.  John immediately released his grip on Malcolm’s throat and grabbed his assailant’s wrists.  He broke Malcolm’s grip free and dropped his elbow on to his neck.  Malcolm’s arms flailed around, hoping to find the pistol that had been flung loose in the struggle.  He found a rock instead and quickly brought it careening into John’s face.  John was knocked off and Malcolm got to his feet.  
“You was s’posed to be a goddamn coward!” he shouted maniacally.  “You picked a hell of a time to be a hero!  Where was this John Driscoll when the heathen Sioux attacked? Huh!? My brother was scalped in that battle, an’ you walked away an’ became a banker!  Does that seem right to you?”  He looked at John writhing on the ground for a moment; then, in a single, swift motion, he drew the Peacemaker from his left holster and shot him in the head.  He holstered the gun, put his hands on his hips, and began to catch his breath.
A moment later, another gunshot echoed through the canyon.  Tommy’d managed to get his hands free, but he was a moment too late.  He stood, shaking, with both hands on Malcolm’s missing Peacemaker.  Malcolm looked down at his dirty white shirt and saw a red spot growing over his chest.  He looked at Tommy.  “Huh,” he said.  “Good boy.”  He dropped to his knees and fell forward.  

***

A cool breeze whipped through Tommy’s hair.  He stood next to a massive bull-pine tree beside his house on the knoll at the edge of town and surveyed the muddy thoroughfare, now filled with more people than ever as the town grew.
“You’ll be late for school if you just stand there daydreaming,” his mother said, coming down the steps and out into the yard.  
“I’ll be just a minute,” he said.  Clara joined him and grabbed his hand.
“It’s been a year,” she said.  
“Yeah.”
“He would have been…” she paused. “He was so proud of you.”
Tommy considered this, but he said nothing.  Since the events a year ago he didn’t say much to anybody.  Other kids left him alone now, and the rest of the townsfolk seemed to quit their conversations when he’d pass by.  He’d done what he had to do – he knew that – but his father was still dead.  
There was a part of him that had, in the first weeks afterward, obsessed over the the what-ifs.  What if he’d been able to free his hands sooner?  What if he’d decided to stand up to Jack and Albert that day, instead of hiding?  In time, though, he realized that thinking that way was useless.  He thought about his father’s time in the Army.  He still didn’t know exactly what had happened – no one did – but he had come to the realization that whatever his father went through in the Army wasn’t nearly as important as what that experience had done to him.  In that regard, he felt now that he finally understood his father.  The encounter with Malcolm had changed him at his core.  
He and his mother stood in silence for a few moments.  He shifted his gaze from the thoroughfare to a single gravestone standing silently beside the giant tree.  Carved into the stone was his father’s name, and an inscription, written by Tommy. The Bravest Man I Ever Knew, it said.  Tommy wiped a tear from his eye, kissed his mother’s hand, and began the descent down the knoll toward the schoolhouse.
The End.

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