Fantasy Historical weird western magic bullet unrequited love

Don't Fence Me In

By Curtis C. Chen
May 7, 2019 · 3,517 words · 13 minutes

Photo by Jens Lelie via Unsplash.

From the author: You can run. You can hide. But you can't escape forever.

The first time I met Horace Granger, he almost got killed by a magic bullet.

He was having an argument with Maynard Cooper in the middle of my saloon. I suppose that was Horace's way of making friends: Figure out who can stand being around you for more than five minutes, then keep them between you and the rest of the world as long as you can.

The sun was coming up, Betty was ending her shift at the bar, and I'd just finished losing my nightly battle with insomnia. I've never in my life been able to sleep for more than a couple hours at a stretch. I hadn't expected to see a card game still going at that time. Usually, by a few hours after midnight, most of our regulars had lost too much or drunk too much to continue gambling.  But Horace was a night owl, just like me—and neither of us by choice.

He'd arrived in Homestake earlier that night. I remembered because it was unusual to see anyone riding into town after dark—at that time, the Dakota territory was still more wild than not, and anyone caught out after sunset was just asking for trouble from coyotes, bandits, and the Sioux.  I didn't know then that Horace had something even worse chasing him.

"That new fellow been here all night?" I asked Betty.

"Yup," she said, wiping a shot glass. "Drunk as a skunk and half as charming."

"Golly," I said. "You must really like him. I ain't heard you talk so sweet about a man since, well, ever."

She bared her teeth at me in a parody of a grin. It was supposed to scare me off, but I always thought she was beautiful. Even with that scar cutting across her face.

The argument, something about cheating at cards, had escalated into shouting and shoving. Horace and Maynard were both standing now. Maynard used his big hands to push Horace back toward the front entrance of the saloon and stomped after him, as if they'd agreed to take it outside. Horace skidded to a halt just inside the doors, then swung his arm up and snatched Maynard's favorite hat off his head.

Maynard swore himself red in the face and tried to grab his hat back, but Horace danced and stumbled backward—I was a little amazed that he didn't fall down, considering how soused he was. He held that fancy ten-gallon headpiece out of Maynard's reach, grinning like a devil the whole time. Horace didn't realize he'd stuck his hand outside of the saloon, just above the swinging doors, and exposed himself to another danger.

I only heard a faint whooshing sound as the bullet flew past. There was no gunshot. There was no gun—just that tiny piece of flying metal. The reflections were what caught my eye. It glinted in the dawn as it tumbled impossibly through the air, like an angry but silent hornet. Never stopping, never falling, always seeking to tear itself through Horace's hide.

The bullet weaved back and forth across the entrance to the saloon, punching holes in Maynard's hat as it tried to make contact with Horace. I don't think Maynard knew what was happening, but he sure as hell saw his favorite hat being ripped apart in another man's hands, and he wasn't happy about it.

Maynard charged Horace and slammed him backwards, out the doors and into the street. Horace landed on his backside in the dirt. That fall probably saved his life, dropping his head out of the line of fire just as the bullet came by again. It cut a gash across the back of his left hand. I heard a yelp, and the hat fell to the ground.

Maynard yelled something rude out the door as he stooped to pick up his hat. Then Horace roared back into the saloon, waving both fists around and dripping blood everywhere. Maynard looked mighty surprised just before Horace knocked him down and started pummeling his face. I stood still as a statue, but I saw Betty's hand slowly edging toward the shotgun under the bar. I put a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

"We don't want any trouble," I said to her under my breath.

"Trouble's here, Joe," she said in a loud whisper. "Don't much matter what you want."

You can't run a saloon in a mining town and not expect a little brawl every now and then. But as long as nobody started shooting, I tried to stay out of the way. I don't like to fight, and I've never been any good at it anyway—never had to learn. My size usually discourages most people from misbehaving.

But Betty had a point. Blood's bad for business. Maynard cursed even louder when Horace cracked Maynard's nose, and I walked out from behind the bar to stop the fight before anybody broke anything else.

Horace wasn't a big man. I didn't even need both hands to pull him off Maynard. I announced that the bar was closed, and Betty hustled Maynard off to Doc's while I took Horace into the back, leading the way with a bottle of whisky. I bandaged up his hand as best I could and sat with him until Betty came back with Doc. That's when Horace told me about the bullet.

He never told me where it came from. Didn't ever want to talk about it. Maybe he was embarrassed, or ashamed, or both. All I know is, it can't be easy to magic a thing like that bullet. Horace must have riled up some real powerful folks somewhere to get that kind of a hex put on himself.

I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. He explained that the bullet couldn't find him at night, or if he was indoors during the daytime—inside a house, a tent, a tipi, even a stagecoach or just under a blanket. As long as he wasn't in the sun and couldn't see the sky, he was safe. That was the point of the curse, he said: To prevent him from seeing the frontier like he wanted to.

People traveled west for all different reasons back then, but you couldn't live in the territories unless you loved the outdoors. You couldn't survive without getting to know the land. Horace hated having to depend on others for help with the most basic things, like navigation and supplies, and at some point along the way, he started feeling bitter. I could see it in his eyes that first night. I'll never forget how bright and blue they were, even in shadow.

At the time, I reckoned Betty and me were the first people to show Horace any measure of kindness in quite a few years. I always thought that was why he stayed. Now I know better.

Horace spent most of his days in Homestake at my saloon. He made his money from gambling, as far as I could tell, and he always wanted to hear the stories that the scouts and soldiers brought back. He didn't much care if they were true or not. He missed being out there himself, and I guess I felt more than a little sorry for him. I knew how beautiful the country was, and I did my best to describe it to him with my limited vocabulary. We spent many a sleepless night just talking at the bar, one lonely insomniac to another.

"I'm still going to see the world, Joe," he used to say to me. "Curse or no curse, I'll figure out a way to get around. Nobody's going to stop me from doing what I want. Nobody."

That's always about where he stopped, as if he was afraid of saying too much. I just nodded and smiled. I'd heard similar proclamations from more than one prospector with big dreams, and most of them never made it out of the saloon. As long as they kept paying for their drinks, I didn't see any reason to shatter their illusions. Everybody needs something to live for.

Betty hated Horace for a long time. She didn't like anyone who caused trouble in town, and that first night left a bad taste in her mouth. She didn't believe his story about the bullet—she hadn't seen it like I had; she'd been watching the other card players to make sure no one drew their guns—and I always saw her marking him at the tables, her eyes dark and suspicious. I think she always knew he was up to something, either cheating or lying or just plain being unpleasant.

"There's something wrong with that man," she'd say to me in passing.

"There's something wrong with every man," I'd reply.

And then she'd say, "Don't I know it."

Thing is, all that hanging around him, watching him like a hawk, meant they couldn't avoid getting to know each other. And all that friction eventually lit some kind of a fire, I guess. It took nearly the whole summer, but when I saw Betty smiling and pouring Horace a drink one night, I knew what had happened. And I felt something I hadn't ever expected: jealous.

No one would have called Betty a great beauty, but they wouldn't have said anything bad about her looks—not to her face, anyway. She stood about a head shorter than me, which was still pretty tall, and had thick arms and legs—not fat, just sturdy—and unmistakable womanly curves.  Maybe she was bigger than some women, but she was big in all the right places.

Of course, there was the scar—a thick slash running from just below her right eye, across the bridge of her nose, and ending near her left ear. I never asked her how she got it, and she never offered to tell. Maybe the sight of it frightened off most men, but after all the time we spent together, I stopped seeing the scar and just saw Betty.

She wasn't like any other woman I've ever known. She was smart, and funny, and purposeful. I don't think the saloon would have lasted more than a month, after my fool brother ran off with that Canadian hussy, if Betty hadn't been around to help me keep it together. If she was afraid of anything in her life, she never let it show. And when she smiled—really smiled—it was like music. Like hearing your favorite song for the first time. It was like that every time.

I regret not telling her how I felt, as soon as I knew it. But we had a good thing going with the saloon, and I didn't want to risk changing that or losing it. And then Horace came to town and got his hooks into her, and I'd never been one to fight over a woman. I just let her go.

Betty cried for a week solid when Horace disappeared. He didn't tell anyone he was leaving, or give any hint where he was going. Most folks thought he was dead or just gone, spirited away by whatever dark force had been following him all that time. I thought the same. I saw how tired he looked every night, just before dawn, how his face fell when he realized what time it was. I figured he'd just given up one morning and ridden out to meet that bullet alone.

Betty didn't tell anyone she was with child until she couldn't hide it any more. Then she sat me down for a serious talk, which started with how I was going to run the saloon by myself but turned into how she hated the thought of raising any child without a father.

She never asked me outright, but I knew what she wanted. And even if I hadn't wanted it myself, I wouldn't have refused. I never could say no to her.

We got hitched a month before she delivered. She named the boy Joseph, after me, but he had Horace's eyes.

Ten years on, the last thing I expected to see was Horace rolling into town on the Black Hills Central. I was at the station with Joseph to meet a delivery of dry goods, and when Horace started to step off the train, into the sunlight, I ran up to stop him. Old habit, I suppose. He laughed and pointed to the heavy safe being unloaded from the baggage car by four Pinkerton detectives. Told me not to worry, that particular problem had been taken care of.

"This your boy?" he asked, looking down at my son—his son. I didn't know how to respond.

Joseph looked back at Horace with those same bright blue eyes. "I'm Joseph," he said.

Horace nodded. "Of course you are."

"Do you know my daddy?"

Horace knelt down, smiling. "Oh, your daddy and I are old friends," he said. "Why, we used to stay up until all hours of the night, just chatting the time away in his saloon. Ain't that right, Joe?"

"Do you have sinomia, too?" Joseph asked.

"Insomnia," I corrected. He never could pronounce the word properly.

"Oh, I used to," Horace said. "Worst case you ever saw. But I got better." He winked up at me.

I suddenly felt the urge to punch something, or someone, but I held it back. For Joseph's sake.

Horace insisted on seeing my whole family. He bought a fancy steak dinner for Betty and Joseph and me while the Pinkertons moved his belongings into a room at the new hotel. He told us stories about the west coast, where he'd gotten into investing instead of gambling. I drank more than I probably should have. Joseph kept staring at Horace, as if he could sense something.

Betty didn't say a word. I could see some old emotion burning behind her eyes—maybe sadness, maybe regret—but she'd given up on Horace a long time ago. She kept looking at me during the meal—wanting me to make the first move, I guess. To do something one way or the other. But I didn't want to start a fight. I figured we'd all moved on, and I thought it was best that we all forgave and forgot anything that had happened in the past.

I should have known better. I should have known Horace would never come back to a dug-out, burned-up mining town just to visit some old friends.

"If you'll allow me, Joe," he said as we were finishing our dinner, "I've brought some things for you and your family."

"What kind of things?" Joseph asked before I could respond.

"That's really not necessary," I said.

Horace ignored me and spoke to Joseph. "Just a few doodads I picked up during my travels.  They're in my safe upstairs." He turned back to me. "Nothing too big. I only want to share a bit of my good fortune. You both helped me through a rough spot in my life. Can't a man show some appreciation?"

"Thank you for the dinner, Horace," I said. His name scraped across my tongue like sandpaper. "But we've already got everything we need."

We stared at each other for a moment. Then he nodded. "I'm sorry, Joe. Betty. I didn't mean any offense."

"We've done all right for ourselves," I said. "Homestake may not be the big city, but it's a good place."

"Absolutely," Horace said. "I have fond memories of my time spent here."

He looked at Betty. She looked away.

"Listen, Joe," Horace said, "I've picked up a few Indian artifacts here and there. Weapons, beads, even a few scalps."

Joseph's eyes widened. He was fascinated by the local tribes, and he talked our ears off every chance he got about how he was going to be a tracker when he grew up.

"Would you let me show the boy some of my collection?" Horace asked. "Not to keep, just to look. I can even tell him a few stories. Nothing that'll keep him up at night."

Joseph whipped his head around to me. "Please, Daddy? Can I, can I, please?"

I looked over at Betty. She blinked some wetness out of her eyes and shrugged. "I suppose we'll never hear the end of it otherwise."

"Go on," I said.

Joseph jumped up from his chair and threw his arms around my neck. "Thank you, Daddy!"

Betty and Joseph followed Horace upstairs while I sat and finished the wine. Horace had paid for a whole bottle, and it seemed a shame to let it go to waste. That's what I told myself, anyway. Truth was, I just wanted to get drunk and stop thinking about all the things I should have been saying or doing or feeling. I wanted my life to be simple again.

When I heard Betty screaming, I stumbled out of my chair and ran upstairs to Horace's room. He was already gone. Betty was on the floor, holding Joseph's body, her dress covered with blood. A red stain was spreading across Joseph's shirt from a ragged hole in the middle of his chest.

A bullet hole.

Horace's safe stood open in the corner. The inside was dented and scratched from God knows how many months of that bullet banging around, trying and failing to get out of its metal prison.

The bullet wasn't chasing Horace any more. He'd given it another target, one with his blood. He probably felt pretty damn clever. Had he been planning this before he ever rode into our lives? Had he come back now because he knew about Joseph?

I don't know why I walked across the room and looked in the safe then, instead of comforting my wife or weeping over my son's body. Maybe I just needed to know if Horace had been telling the truth about anything.

He hadn't, of course. There were no doodads or Indian artifacts inside the safe. There was nothing but a battered steel canister. My name was engraved into the lid. The note inside was also addressed to me, and all Horace had written was: "Sorry about your boy." Underneath the note was more cash than I'd ever seen anywhere outside of a bank vault.

It wasn't enough. Nothing in the world would have been enough.

Betty died a month later. Doc said it was an overdose of laudanum, but I knew better. It was the heartbreak. She had loved Horace, and he had used her. He'd used both of us—all three of us. I still wonder when he first came up with his plan to break the curse. I wonder how many other people he'd used, or tried to, along the way.

Before we buried Joseph, without telling Betty, I asked Doc to dig the bullet out of Joseph's heart. He didn't want to, but I made him do it. That might have been the first time in my life I ever struck a man in anger. I wouldn't say it felt good, but I didn't feel bad about it, either. I know what I have to do. I won't let anyone stand in my way.

The bullet's not lead, and it's not soft. It's some kind of pale blue metal. There are strange-looking symbols cast into the surface—Chinese script. Some of the railroad workers in the north part of town identified the writing, but none of them would translate the words. They tell me it's a bad thing, that I don't want any part of that world. But I'm already in it.

I wear the bullet close to my heart now, on a necklace, like a pendant. Before I left Homestake, I paid a blacksmith to trap the bullet inside a pewter mold. It looks like an arrowhead. A souvenir from my days in the wild west, that's what I tell people if they ask. I don't let anybody touch it.

It took a long time and most of Horace's blood money to track down that Chinese medicine woman in San Francisco. She wasn't the one who made the bullet, but she knew the same rituals. After some convincing, she woke up whatever magic was left inside it, and added a little of her own.

I don't need the bullet to find Horace, but it makes the searching a lot easier. As long as the sun's out, I just need to whisper a few syllables, and it points me toward where he is, as the crow flies. I don't need much sleep, so I can travel pretty quick. There's nowhere in the world he can hide.

I hired the Pinkertons, too. It seemed like some kind of justice to have them hunt down Horace for me. Their latest telegram says he's headed for some place called Barrow, all the way up north in the Yukon territory. I guess he's still looking for the frontier. Still running away.

I'll find Horace soon. It's summer up there now. There are eighty days when the sun doesn't set. And I've got a bullet with his name on it.

This story originally appeared in Song Stories: Blaze of Glory.

Curtis C. Chen

Curtis writes mostly science fiction and fantasy. MOSTLY.