Western Short Story - Desolation
She slammed the door to the mercantile and stalked angrily down the covered boardwalk, pausing only to lift her skirts before stepping into the dusty street. Why she had ever married that man was a mystery to her. She had just handed him final divorce papers and all he did was look at her sadly and slowly shake his head. “I’ll see you at home, Molly,” he had said quietly before turning to wait on a rancher needing fencing wire and staples. It was yet another confrontation he had avoided and it only added to her determination to be free of him.
She had first met him just two years ago in her hometown of Baltimore when her cousin Jeffrey, a young executive with the railroad, had brought him home. She was immediately taken with this dashing, tall, handsome man and his exciting stories of the western frontier and before the night was over, she had set her cap for him. In the ensuing weeks, she turned on the charm and in less than two months was on her way to Texas as Mrs. Dan Macklin.
The town of Desolation was a bustling young community that catered to both ranchers and farmers and Dan had successfully persuaded the railroad to put in a spur for shipments of cattle and produce. It was profitable arrangement for all due largely to the efforts of men like Dan Macklin and it had put the town on the map.
Macklin owned the hardware and mercantile on main street and had gone to Baltimore to plead the town’s case to the railroad. He had returned both a hero and a married man. He was obviously highly respected in Desolation and Molly swelled with pride as Dan introduced her to the town’s gentry as his wife. Dan’s home was one of the largest in town and it was considered one of the most modern in the territory.
At first, the west was a shock to Molly. The streets were either choking with dust or nearly impassable with clinging mud, depending on the season. There were no lamplighters at night because there were no lamps and there was also no scheduled street cleaning. Young cowboys fresh from a trail drive often whooped down the streets and shot up the town until Marshal Wade intervened and hauled one or two off to jail. But gradually she made a silent if uneasy truce with her surroundings and ignored that which she could not change. Everything that is, except Dan and his one big failing.
Dan and Molly had taken part in a barn raising. Dan was more than a fair carpenter and Molly, despite being a city girl and somewhat spoiled, was an excellent cook and was not afraid of hard work. She worked with the other women and fed the hungry men a huge breakfast and a noon meal that was even larger. When they left that night, the barn was standing and the grateful owner announced a barn dance for the following weekend and invited the whole town.
Molly looked forward to the social event all week and had chatted excitedly with the widow Florence Wilson, who had been married to Dan’s best friend and was now Molly’s confidante and trusted friend. Florence had lost her husband to a logging accident several years before and paid no attention to those who sought to replace him. She was beautiful but seemed unaware of the attentions of the local bachelors.
When Saturday night finally rolled around, Molly was dressed in her finest and she and Dan were the most attractive couple there, at least in her opinion. Dan was an excellent dancer and she felt like a butterfly in his arms. Several men approached their table for a dance with her and she looked at Dan who smiled his assent. Then it happened.
Curly Bob was a top hand at a local ranch and when sober, was quite the gentleman. However, this night he was anything but sober. As the band began a new dance, Curly Bob slipped an arm around the startled Molly and whirled her across the floor in a great swooping waltz before anyone could react. The startled crowd stepped back and a grinning Bob swept Molly back to her table and deposited her in her chair.
“Thank you ma’am and I’ll be back for another before the night is through.”
While the crowd laughed, Molly stared at her husband who seemed to be ignoring the entire episode.
“Are you going to just sit there and let me be insulted?” she whispered savagely.
“He meant no harm Molly and certainly no insult. He’s just had a little too much John Barleycorn and he’s feeling his oats.”
“He said he’d return and do it again!”
“I doubt that he’ll be back Molly. I really do.”
An astonished Molly looked him straight in the eye and quietly but fiercely said, “You’re afraid of him aren’t you? Have I a coward for a husband?”
The rest of the evening was strained and the ride home was silent except for the creak of leather and sounds of the night. When they arrived, Molly flounced out of the carriage and ran into the house while Dan put up the rig and horse. When he came to bed, she appeared to be fast asleep although Dan was sure she wasn’t.
Gradually, the incident was forgotten and Molly was in high spirits one day when she entered the mercantile to bring Dan his noon dinner. She was almost to the counter when she was startled to see a gun in the hand of the man talking to her husband. Her eyes widened as the man turned toward her and revealed a bandanna covering his lower face. Molly knew Dan kept a pistol under the counter and she waited for him to draw it while the robber was looking at her but Dan didn’t move.
“Get over there so’s I can watch you lady!” He waved her to the counter with the barrel of his gun.
“Now hand over the money and be quick about it!” He looked quickly back and forth from Molly to Dan.
Dan opened the till and gave the contents to the thief.
“Now both of you stand still until I’m gone.”
Watching them, he backed out of the store and moments later they heard the gallop of hooves. Dan ran to the door and looked down the street.
“I’ll get the marshal, Molly, Wait here.”
Molly went around the counter and found Dan’s pistol right where it should have been. She checked the cylinder and found it fully loaded. She put it back on the shelf.
That evening as Dan puffed on his pipe over the mercantile books, Molly quietly sat across from him. After a while, Dan looked up and asked, “What is it Molly? You’ve hardly said a word since I came home.”
“Why didn’t you get your pistol out from under the counter and stop that robbery while that thief was looking at me?” she demanded, her eyes hard and glaring, “It was there and loaded. I checked.”
For a moment Dan studied her. “Two reasons Molly. One was that he already had his gun in his hand and I didn’t.”
“What was the other reason?”
“You were there. It wasn’t worth the risk.”
“I don’t believe you. This is the second time you failed to act! I thought you were a coward the first time. Now I know you are!”
The most infuriating thing to Molly was that Dan was even afraid of her! Not once did he make any attempt to defend himself beyond his original explanations. When she took a room in the hotel and openly visited Kerry Manson, the town attorney, Dan said nothing. What began as legal business with Manson soon had the town talking. Manson was darkly handsome, and, unlike Dan, wore a tied down pistol at all times and Molly soon thought him to be everything that Dan was not. They were often seen at dinner together quietly discussing what Molly told Florence Wilson were divorce proceedings.
“You’re making a big mistake Molly,” counseled Florence, “Dan’s no coward. Remember, I’ve known him all my life. Yes, he’s cautious and slow to anger but a coward? No, not at all.”
“What about that time Curly Bob grabbed me and dragged me around Flo? Dan did nothing!”
“Bob was drunk and Dan didn’t want to start a brawl with all the women around.”
“Bob said he’d come back and Dan never said a word!”
“Well did he come back Molly? Did he? No! And why not? Because Dan spoke to him and that’s all it took. Men respect Dan around here.”
“I don’t believe it. Dan’s a coward and I want to be rid of him. Kerry Manson is off to get Judge Myers to sign the final divorce papers and then we’re leaving Desolation!”
“Final divorce papers? Without allowing Dan to even have his say in court? How can Kerry do that?”
“The judge owes Kerry a favor. That’s all Dan deserves,” said Molly primly, “Besides, he won’t say a word. He’s afraid of Kerry Manson.”
Florence gazed at Molly for a moment and quietly said, “You’re a poor judge of character Molly. A poor one indeed.”
Now she had given Dan the papers and all that was left was to go to the bank to draw out her personal savings. Her bags were packed and in Kerry’s carriage. It was time to leave Desolation.
Molly stepped into the dark coolness of the bank and walked up to the teller.
“Yes, Mrs. Macklin, what can I do for you?”
“It’s not Mrs. Macklin any longer,” she snapped. “I’m here to draw out my account. In cash if you please.”
As the teller finished counting out her money, Molly heard the door open and close behind her. She had finished and was turning to leave when an arm went around her waist and a cold voice said, “I’ll just take that money ma’am and you too. We can use us a pretty hostage. Now just shut up and do what you‘re told.”
The teller was directed to empty the till and the other gunman, a redhead, vaulted the counter and put a gun to the banker’s head. “Open the safe.”
“The safe’s open, but the vault can’t be opened until tonight and that’s where most of the cash is kept. It’s on a time lock.”
The gunmen looked at each other and the one holding Molly raised his gun and calmly shot the teller with a deafening roar in the small confines of the bank
He turned to the banker. “Now open that vault or you’re next.”
The banker paled. “Then you may as well shoot me too mister because I can’t open that vault until 6:00 this evening. I’m telling the truth.”
Molly felt herself being dragged to the door and into the street. The two bank robbers waved their guns around and curious citizens hastily backed through doorways and shut the doors. Down the street Molly could see Kerry Manson walking toward her and she was filled with pride and hope. Suddenly, Manson saw what was taking place and to Molly’s horror, quickly turned into his office and slammed the door!
Molly was being half carried, half shoved toward two horses at the rail when she heard a sharp clear voice, “You two. Let her go and raise your hands. I’m Dan Macklin.”
Molly felt the man holding her suddenly stiffen and she wondered why. Down the street she could see Dan striding swiftly toward them, a pistol in each hand
“We don’t want no trouble with you, Macklin. This ain’t no concern of your'n.”
“I’d say that it is. The woman you’re holding is my wife.”
Molly looked at the redhead and saw him nervously licking his lips and glancing sideways at her captor. The man holding her suddenly seemed to smell of stale sweat and fear. Why, these men were afraid! Afraid of Dan!
Dan stopped. “Last chance men. Let her go and drop your weapons.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Molly saw the redhead start to lift his gun and Dan shot him, stepped swiftly to his left and then shot him twice more,
Dan spun toward her and yelled, “Drop Molly!”
For the first time in her married life, Molly did exactly what her husband said. She let her knees collapse and she slid down the man’s legs to the ground. Instinctively, the gunman’s grip tightened and he bent down to grab her. Too late he realized his mistake and straightened up in time to see Dan Macklin’s right eye lined up over the barrel of his Colt .44. It was the last thing he ever saw.
For a moment, Molly sat in the dust of the street stunned by the violence and bewildered by the sudden turn of events. Then she heard a clatter of hooves and glanced down the street in time to see Kerry Manson heading out of town at a full gallop with her bags still in his carriage. He wasn’t looking back.
Dan watched him for a moment and then turned back to her. “Manson’s a coward Molly. He always has been. The whole town knows it. He wears that gun because he’s afraid, not because he’s brave.”
Molly looked up at Dan standing there, tall and alone in the street where he had just faced down two killers. He was as calm as if he was waiting on a customer in the mercantile.
“I’m no coward, Molly. I never have been and I’ve never had much use for one.”
Molly struggled to her feet and dusted herself off. She had completely misjudged this man. In fact, she had misjudged the whole town. She walked toward Dan and extended her hands. Dan reached into his back pocket, took out an envelope and placed it in her outstretched hands.
She looked up at him with a puzzled look on her face. “What is this Dan?”
“It’s a ticket back to Baltimore, Molly. You’re not western. You never will be.”
When Dan opened the fence gate to his house that evening, he saw Florence Wilson waiting for him on the porch swing with a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses.
“Come sit with me a spell Dan, “ she said, patting the seat beside her, “ We have things to talk about.”
For a moment he stood silently, suddenly aware that Florence Wilson was a strikingly beautiful woman. Then he slowly smiled and nodded, “Yes, I reckon we do at that, Flo. We have a whole lifetime to talk about.”