Thelma looked out at everybody and I saw their concern mirrored in her eyes. I knew Thelma cared about everybody and for the town as well, and I could see how much she did. She looked like she could feel the fear and the pain of all of us. But she didn’t fault or alter. She stood there, and looked over everybody in the room. No one was missed, and everybody awaited what she was going to say. She took a breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she didn’t look up at anyone, but just very quiet and calm, plainly stated: “I don’t know.”
Everybody looked around, at each other and then toward Mr. Rawlingwell who said, “What do you mean? Thelma, this man has ruined us. Whatever hope of peace is gone. We are doomed like this. And that’s all you have to say?”
Thelma looked back up at everybody and asked them, “What is it that you want?” Everybody looked at each other once more, this time more frustrated. Mr. Rawlingwell began to open his mouth again before Thelma stopped him. “Bill,” she said, which is Mr. Rawlingwell’s first name, “you used to be a very celebrated lawyer, and that wasn’t even that long ago. You had everyone’s back who needed you, and you helped so many of us when we were down and out. I can’t think of many more in this town who were as beloved than you. Now Frank has you cleaning up in the stables. Is that what you want? Look, all of you, I know what that note said, and I know all of you are concerned. So am I. But do all of you want to go on living as you’ve been just to avoid death another day? What I know for certain is if that man hadn’t done what he did, I’d have waken up in the same place as Cody Lyles, and he’d be down here making his demands and probably thrashing the place, instead of all of you. All of us together, and at least we’re safe here for now. For all we know that man could be out front keeping guard and watching out for us. I don’t know what he wants or what he’s doing, but we should trust him. I believe he’s here to help. I believe he already has.”
No one said anything. The room was quiet for a second. I don’t know if anyone knew what to say, and before anyone could find something, out from the entryway, the man’s voice broke through and streamed throughout the room, “Thelma,” he sorta whispered. He said it in a way I will never forget. His voice was like a fresh glass of water when we worried of never having one again. And he stood there at the entryway, it looked like he might’ve been rolling cigar, but all I was able to make out was his shape in the archway. I couldn’t distinguish his face or any feature. Just a black silhouette behind the doorway with a thousand of the sun’s rays beaming in the background.
“Thelma,” he said again pulling his hands away from his face after sealing the cigar, “Bring me all the women who have lost their husbands during all this.”
Everybody looked around one last time at a loss for what to do and what to think before Thelma signaled the widows to go outside. I followed with them, and Thelma continued addressing everybody that was left.
He asked the widows and me to follow him. We walked down to the old general store, and when we got there he told me to retrieve all the rifles, and to bring him the note. I did. He took a brief glance at it, then he walked up the steps there and turned back and faced us. He looked out at each one of the women the same kind of way Thelma had looked over everybody. It was like he was inviting them to participate in whatever he knew. What that was, I couldn’t tell you. At the same time it was as if he was also sharing that he knew what they knew. It was something personal directed at each of these women. Then again like Thelma, he took a breath, and looked down. When he looked back up, he told them, “I’m sorry for each of your losses.” He held there for a second, with his eyes wrapped in black connecting with theirs, “But it’s time. I want you to take back this town with me. You’ve all seen enough of this famine. This famine of dignity. This famine of security and decency. This famine of the heart. Frank promised you all a prosperous and lively town where your husbands would grow rich and your children would be educated in the best environment, and where you could all live your best lives safely and securely. Since then your husbands have been murdered, and you’ve been forced to work wherever Frank put you. And the few of you with children know your kids aren’t growing up in an environment they can thrive in, and they aren’t getting the best from you, which they deserve. The measure of a good town isn’t the food at the inn, or the size of the stables, or the profits from the gaming tables. Other than the church, it’s back over there in the school yard, and right here where we stand. If the school yard, where kids begin to grow into the people they will become, and the general store, where people gather and can pick up the goods they need to take care of themselves and those they love, are fruitful and prosperous, that’s when you know you’re in a good town. That’s the sign people are living well. Now, I can’t promise you you won’t get hurt going forward if you choose to, but I can promise you your best life. The life Frank originally promised. And I am not going to do what Frank did. My word is how I mean it. And I mean my word when I say it. But in order to do this, I need your help.”
Their gaze stayed on the Man In Black. A moment or two sunk in, then Ms. Leavenworth stepped up and asked, “What do you need us to do?”
The Man In Black replied, “I need you to be my army.” Before they had the chance to look around and question what was just brought forth, he continued, “I need people that aren’t going to hesitate to take back this town and reclaim what they deserve. That will not fear what lies in between them and what they truly want. That will not accept nor consider any terms of living dictated from someone who places no inherit value on their lives. I need people who are going to step up at the hour of opportunity, when dawn is near and a new day is ahead. A new day that still beckons in their stomach and calls to them in the quiet of the night. That hour has arrived. Will you answer the call? If you will, please step forward and accept a rifle Buck has retrieved for you.”
Without reservation the women stepped forward and claimed their weapon. He instructed me to show them how to unload the weapon and then teach them the ins and outs and basics of handling a firearm and of the firearm itself.
I saw him take a longer look at the note. All it stated was the situation with the water and food supply, and issued further threats on the town. More regulations and what not. But it also concluded with a large bounty on him. The town had no trust in Frank, but the sum was considerable. He crinkled it up and lit a match to it. Well, that’s that, I thought.
For the next hour or so I did as was instructed and showed all the widows in town how to handle a rifle. All the while I was doing this he walked over to the stables and started in on some type of ceremony I’d never seen before.
He knelt down in front and put his hands on the floor. I didn’t know what to make of it, just thought it was peculiar so I drew the attention of the women more toward me in the opposite direction so none of them would see him. He stayed there for a few minutes and then kissed the ground and buried something he pulled from his pocket. I don’t know what it was. He held it tightly and covered it until it was in the ground. Then he started sorta messing with the dirt. It looked like he was writing something with his finger. When he finished doing that he walked into the stables and stayed in there for awhile. I kept looking to see when he’d come out, but he didn’t.
After awhile I made sure to focus on what I was doing with the widows. I had said just about everything I was planning to about a rifle and shooting n all when he came out. He bowed down facing the stables like a chinaman would, then kissed the side of the archway that led inside with his hand. Next, he knelt down and wiped the ground where it looked like he was writing before. Then he stood and it looked like he was maybe saluting the sky with another kiss on his hand, just more passionately this time. Paused for a moment after that, and began making his way back toward us.
I scrambled around for a second and then tried to focus back on the widows to pretend like I didn’t see him. I was captivated by the whole thing though. And right after he started walking back, Thelma and the rest of everybody filed out from Thelma’s behind him. Then started our way as well. Who knows what they were talking about in Thelma’s, but when they started heading our direction right after the Man In Black was doing the same, from where I was standing, it looked like he was leading them from a distance. It looked like they were following him to some destination.
I wiped my eyes and my forehead and looked out more intently toward them. What the hell is going on? I told the women we were through for now and that he was coming back. They turned and saw the same thing I was looking at.
The widows cleared a way for him and he walked up past them and over to me. Then shook my hand, and said well done. Then he walked toward the crowd and met them on their way to us closer toward the stables. When they approached each other, Mr. Rawlingwell chimed in again asking “What in God’s name are all of them doing?”
The Man In Black embraced Thelma immediately and grasped her hands with his and thanked her. He asked her to gather supplies for a dinner we could share in together. Said to include all the fixings which surprised me, and then to ration the remains. After he looked out and upon Mr. Rawlingwell and the rest of the crowd and asked if all the able bodied men would follow him inside to the stables. Everybody began to disperse and go where he said, including Mr. Rawlingwell.
Thelma and the rest of the women, which were fewer in number than the widows_ Thelma’s girls and few others that weren’t married, Mrs. Rawlingwell, and a couple others whose husbands hadn’t been killed went to collect all the remaining food that was in town. The widows continued to practice, and all the townsmen, even Mr. Clemons and Mr. Ellington, who were well into their sixties, headed to the stables with him.
I paused for a moment, and didn’t know what to do. I had nowhere to be. Everybody was appointed somewhere and I lingered behind by myself. I figured I could go help the widows with their rifles, and started to turn that way before I heard the Man In Black call out, “Hey Buck!” It was almost startling. It shocked me and sent a jolt of electricity through my body before I could put my foot down in the direction back toward the mercantile. “That means you too!” he exclaimed. My stomach sank a little just from excitement and I stood at attention and began marching toward the stables to perform whatever duty was waiting for me with the rest of them.
When we got to the stables, he looked at all of us, and in the dim light inside there we could see there was no hesitation in him. He had a sense of urgency, and we all knew what he was capable of. Everybody kept quiet to themselves while he marched around marking four corners of a large square in front of us. When he finished what he was doing he took a moment to himself at the far end, opposite us. He looked like he was deep in thought, devising a plan of some sort, and surely he was. Everybody, including Mr. Rawlingwell kept quiet. I’m not sure if anybody else felt the same way, but I had a sense of obligation to hear what he was going to say and to wait as long as we needed to before he did. I looked at him like a great general constructing a plan to win a longstanding war, and felt only gratitude for him gracing us with his presence.
I looked at everybody else and they all seemed to carry a blank expression as if they had no idea what to think or what to feel. They looked solitary, each man unto himself, tired and helpless from the overbearing, always ill-boding and relentless persecution from Frank that had been our everyday reality for too long. They just looked upon this man that stood in front of us waiting to know what he was going to say. There was nothing for them to do, say, or feel except what the Man In Black led them to. The only one who looked any different was Mr. Rawlingwell who looked nervous and agitated, as if he didn’t want to be there and that the Man In Black could only bring trouble. I could tell he wanted to say something, anything he could, but he didn’t. Everybody waited, and so did he.
Every second seemed like another hour where we didn’t know what to do or what was next, but I stood there christened with great anticipation for whatever he’d say or bring forth. I trusted it was only for our benefit or for the good of the town, but still I watched and saw everybody else in the same sort of manner and likeness like I first had when I saw this man riding in and approaching our town the way he did, but not quite.
That’s not what they were watching. Maybe it would’ve been different if they were watching something like that. They weren’t captivated the way I was. They weren’t in anticipation, or even apprehension either. They weren’t trying to make sense of anything. I looked at my fellow townsmen and saw a blankness that only struck pity in me. And I was torn how keen and drawn in I felt and for the cold distance and despair I felt from my fellow townsmen. They had no idea what he would say. They had no idea how they felt. It was as if he was the only thing in the world that they ever knew. Maybe the only thing that existed at all anymore. And they just waited. Nothing else. Just waited.
Without turning around at all, the Man In Black kept his position leaning on his arm up against the wall across from us, and just let out with a sense of relief, “You all are gonna dig.”
Finally the men and the air in the room cracked and the men began looking around glancing at one another. Mr. Rawlingwell probably would’ve said something, but the Man In Black turned toward us and said the same thing again, “You all are gonna dig.”
He came toward us a little more, and went on, “We don’t have much of a window here before Frank makes his next move, or he sends lookouts to see how we’re responding to his note this morning.” He stood right in the middle of where he had marked the four corners. He appeared as though he had been right where he was now, somewhere before. Perhaps somewhere else at a different time, but more so like he’d been there with us. And not only that, but with each individual exactly as they were. It seemed like he knew how we felt. Like he’d seen that same look on our faces. Like each one of them were holding or carrying something that he had already relieved us from altogether. “Three of you are going to stay here and dig as deep as you can from one corner to the next. The rest of you are going to follow Buck and I and dig as many holes as you can outside of town.”
He gave further instructions to the men who were going to stay in the stables, then explained to the rest of us what we were doing and how to do it. Then he assigned each of us, besides me, a partner. The men appointed to the stables stayed behind. Everybody else followed to the outer banks just outside of town, on the west side, which was the only way into town from Frank’s ranch without riding all the way around and heading back from the opposite direction. Then everybody started digging holes to the measurements and specifications the Man In Black instructed. Once things were under way, he came up to me with his horse and another beside him and asked me to join him. I obliged happily and we rode out in the direction toward the ranch.
Music: Budos Band – Ride or Die
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