A Flower for EstrithAugust 21, 2018
He stood and took down his derby hat and placed it upon his head as the train drew into the station. Looking out the window, he could see pen after pen corralling cattle by the hundred where, once, bison would have roamed free. The train juddered to a halt and he climbed down onto the platform, travelling case in hand.
If he were a character in one of the dime novels that were so popular back east, he would have ridden into town on the back of a marvellous white stallion with a silver six-shooter at his hip, but Magnus Lars was no Cowboy adventurer nor a gunslinger, merely a man intent upon a singular goal. Back in Ohio, he’d been a farmer with a respectable acreage, a father and a deacon of his church. Today, he was something darker, an angel of death come to wreak vengeance upon the unrighteous. At least, that was what he prayed the Lord would allow him to be.
He exited the makeshift station for the dusty streets of the cow-town. Here, the Cowboys would gather, bringing together their herds from vast distances away for sale at the annual auction, gifting the ranch owners a fortune and blowing their own wages on an orgy of tawdry thrills, booze, and tobacco.
“Howdy, stranger,” said a well-heeled cowboy in a dark-blue suit and a sombrero. “You new in town?”
He nodded. “Yes. Is there a place I might stay around here?”
The man laughed. “Oh dear, no! All the hotels are full up. You chose a helluva time to come visit, stranger.”
Magnus said nothing. His timing had been deliberate.
“There might be some space in a stable, up in the hayloft, perhaps; a bit like Mary and Joseph. Nothing better, I’m sure. Oh, and by the way,” he thrust out a hand for him to shake, “the name’s Luke. Always happy to help a newcomer.” He gave Magnus a wide, insincere grin.
Magnus introduced himself.
“Perhaps I can assist you,” Luke continued. “I think I know a place where you can stay.”
He led him down a dusty street lined with gaudy frontages that concealed buildings little more than hovels towards one of the gaudiest.
“This way,” Luke said, leading Magnus down a side alley to the stable yard.
A man in overalls, who looked as scruffy as Luke was duded up, stepped out of the shadows.
“Hiya, Pauley. This here is Magnus. Pauley runs this place. Hey, Pauley, any space for Magnus to lay down his head?”
“Sure is: for a price.”
“How much?” asked Magnus, knowing he was about to be gouged.
“Two dollars a night.”
Biting back a retort, Magnus took out four dollars, saying, “I don’t intend to stay here more than two nights.”
Pauley nodded and directed him to a corner.
Magnus settled down, tired after his journey. The straw made a serviceable bed.
He was startled from his doze by a voice demanding, “What do you think you’re doing, sunshine?”
It was a large man in straining overalls with a pitchfork in his hand. He looked ready to use it on Magnus as easily as he might the straw.
Magnus gabbled out an explanation, realising he’d been conned.
“That’ll be Luke Blake. He’d swindle anyone, even his own ma – indeed, I hear tell he did; took all her cash when he came out West. Pauley’s his cousin.”
Magnus added Luke and his lousy cousin to the list he carried in his head, minor transgressions compared to the rest.
“Now, if you want to stay here…” the man went on.
“One dollar a night.”
He paid up; he was surprised the amount was so reasonable.
Left alone, he curled up in the corner and drifted away. He needed to be rested for the morning.
Magnus woke with a start. It was still dark. Something had disturbed him. Perhaps it was one of the horses; he heard a snort and the sound of one shifting position.
He shifted position himself, trying to get comfortable once more. Then, he heard the light pad of footsteps. Looking up, he spotted a small shadow out in the yard. Slowly, it came nearer and he could just make out a young girl.
“You won’t find your daughter here,” she told him.
“Who are you?”
“You won’t find her here,” she repeated, the glistening tracks of tears running down her cheeks.
He woke with a start, gasping for air, and heard a horse snorting. Just a dream. Yet, he found himself looking about for her, wishing she were there. That Estrith were there.
Not that there was any mystery as to where his daughter was: Magnus replayed finding her broken body. He would never forget.
He rose. There was no way he could sleep now. He had some bread and cheese in his travelling case that would do for breakfast. Then, as soon as the sun was up, he would begin his search.
For the first time in months, Magnus smiled. It was a grim smile, but one of satisfaction: God appeared to have answered his prayers. As he’d suspected, Doc McGuiver was in town; in fact, he was running one of the saloons in which the cowboys could divest themselves of their money. But, along with him, the Benson Brothers and O’Rahilly were also in town, in his employ. The whole set.
Magnus took his equipment from his case and readied himself for revenge. He was no gunfighter, but buckled on a shiny-new Peacemaker and hefted a scattergun in his arms. Last of all, he took a long-dead and faded cornflower from a pocket in the case and inserted it into his buttonhole: Estrith had picked it the day she died.
He set out for the saloon. By noon, either they all would be dead or he would.
McGuiver’s Saloon had the largest and most tawdry façade of all, which was what Magnus had expected, based on reports he’d heard of the man. Brash and loud with no substance, only cruelty and greed. His fingers tightened on his scattergun at the thought of the man.
He stepped through the saloon doors, which clattered back and forth behind him. The room was nearly empty: the revellers of the night before had slunk away with the rising of the sun and it seemed anyone else were out back in the private rooms. A couple of patrons snoozed at tables and a man slouched behind the bar, lazily polishing a glass to no apparent effect.
“I’m looking for Doc McGuiver, the Benson Brothers and O’Rahilly. They here?”
“You looking for trouble, stranger?” the barman asked, setting down the glass and casually reaching under the counter.
“I’m looking to kill them,” he replied. He aimed the gun and added, “Keep your hands where I can see them.”
The man didn’t comply, so Magnus put some buckshot into the front of the bar. The man’s hands shot up.
The two snoozers woke at the sound and there was a crash as the table was tipped over to form a shield.
Magnus span about and fired, shot peppering the table before they could fire. It made them keep their heads down as they fumbled for their guns, but was otherwise only effective as harsh words at quelling a storm.
Magnus tossed the scattergun aside and jerked the Peacemaker from the holster on his hip.
Blam! Blam! The shots drilled through the table, but Magnus had no idea if he’d hit the men, because his attention had turned to the rear of the saloon where a door had opened and men were pouring through. On the edge of his vision, he thought he saw the barman skipping out.
With no regard for his safety, Magnus pulled the trigger again and again. Men sprawled and blood splashed the walls. Among them, Magnus saw O’Rahilly, but he felt nothing at seeing him dead.
Then, he was forced to pause to reload. The men began to return fire in a desultory fashion, still tired and confused. The Bensons were there and McGuiver and he felt a sense of satisfaction to see Luke and Pauley were also amongst them. He shouldn’t have been surprised, he thought, bottomfeeders always seemed to cluster together.
A bullet took out Pauley and, another, the younger of the two Benson Brothers. He had them.
Then, stars exploded before his eyes and pain flashed through his skull as something slammed into the side of his head. The Peacemaker fell from his fingers and he sagged to his knees, then fell sprawled upon the sawdust-scattered floor.
The barman loomed over him, a cudgel in his hand. He kicked the gun away from Magnus, then drove his boot into his guts. Magnus yelped and spat bile.
Strong arms seized him and tossed him into a chair. McGuiver loomed before him, spitting curses and demanding to know who he was. Magnus couldn’t resist: his head was swimming and his strength had fled.
“You killed Estrith,” Magnus groaned.
It was clear from his expression that Doc McGuiver had no idea who Estrith was, nor cared. Had he really killed so many maidens? Magnus wouldn’t put it past him.
“I’m here for revenge,” he managed to gasp.
McGuiver laughed and his cohorts joined in with a mocking bray.
“Well,” the man chuckled, cocking his pearl-handled revolver, “it seems all you’re gonna get is an unmarked grave.”
Magnus shook his head. The movement hurt him, but he was no longer as dazed nor did he feel weak as a babe. He focused on what he needed to do. Their arrogance would assist him.
“There’s no law out here, no justice,” Doc McGuiver continued, “only that dispensed by the barrel of a gun. And, now, you die.” He pointed the gun at him.
Suddenly, Magnus was moving. Throwing himself out of the chair, he lunged towards Luke’s smug face. He whipped a knife from his boot and stabbed it into the dandy’s neck and, as the man squealed like a stuck pig, Magnus stepped back and stood tall.
Doc McGuiver swore and leveled his pistol at him, but Magnus just held up a match. McGuiver tilted his head, bemused.
Magnus flicked the match into life, then opened his jacket a little to show two of the several sticks of dynamites he’d strapped to himself. Knowing he had little skill with a gun, he’d prepared for just such an outcome. The movement of his lapel caused the desiccated cornflower to fall from his buttonhole and drift towards the floor.
McGuiver swore again, eyes wide with fear, and began to pull the trigger of his gun.
Magnus touched the flame to the stub of fuse as McGuiver’s gun boomed. It was too late: death wouldn’t halt what was about to occur, and, no matter what McGuiver might contend, justice would be dispensed, through the medium of an explosion.
Magnus remembered his daughter for the final time in that moment. He shortly would be with her again. Forever.
The dynamite blossomed into fire: a deadly flower for Estrith.by