2012 Young Writers Cowboy Fiction Contest sponsored by Western Fictioneers.
The Winners --
1st Place: Daniel A. Haddad - "A Vigilante" Daniel will receive $100, one copy of "The Traditional West".
2nd Place: Alexandra Titizian - "Not Every Cowboy is a Hero" Alexandra will receive $50 and one copy of "The Traditional West."
3rd Place: Gregory Titizian - "The Wanted List" Gregory will receive $25 and one copy of "The Traditional West."
Joshua Murguia, Daniel's English teacher, will also receive a $25 Barnes and Noble gift card.
Winners will be presented their awards at the "Read 'em Cowboy!" event at Barnes & Noble in Redlands on July 28th.
1st Place Story
By Daniel A. Haddad
The seventh full moon of the year rises over the far mountains peaking beyond the horizon. A month has passed since his long and arduous journey began across the deserts of the unsettled and newly discovered American west. This journey, an adventure he would tell himself to pass the time, began for one purpose and one alone: money. A vigilante he fancies himself, but no honest man of the law respects money paid for the execution of an innocent man. Innocence or not, a job is a job and he cared not for petty issues of morality or the benevolence of the law.
Watson is his name, or so he tells others. To be honest, so many pseudonyms disguise his visage that not even he remembers his rightful birth name. It is truly unimportant though; he has no life without his work and his work keeps no records. This particular job, however, is more of an undertaking than he usually encounters. He’s chased bandits and debtors and robbers and simple farm hands, yet never has he trifled with a priest. A man of no faith and little other principal, Watson may not be the strongest Christian man on this Earth, but he’d be damned if any man would say he wasn’t respectful to those who were.
In his upbringing on those Great Plains just East of where he hunts today, his mother, for the short time she lived, did all she ever did and loved all she ever loved in the name of God. Unfortunately, she couldn’t hold on to this life long enough to instil the same faith in her son, and perhaps if she did he wouldn’t have become this detestable bounty hunter, and perhaps he would still remember his birth name. Yes, it’s true she died at the hands of her husband, abusive and unforgiving as he smoked his corn pipe. It’s also true, as many rumours have suggested, that Watson’s father died at the hands of his son, trembling and frail as he dropped his father’s smoking gun. Proudly, Watson recalls this as his first and only honourable murder. He was eight at the time.
Many years later, Watson carries forth his proud tradition of murder for a purpose, however shallow it may be. In the eyes of each fallen victim, he sees the unforgiving gaze of his father, and in the gleam of each client he sees the shine of a mother he can hardly recall.
This victim, however, pained Watson. Why is it, after twenty-five years of his paid service does he feel the sting of guilt? Father John, the priest he has been commissioned to kill, is similar to every man he’s set out to extinguish; he has no family, few friends, pissed off the wrong party -- the staple of a man that could find himself trailed by our killer. Without conviction Watson would kill, collect his pay, and carry on to the next mining town as he wanders, lonely and lost but the thought of killing a priest, a man of God: how could he conceive it? Why, even, did his client wish this priest dead? What harm could a priest have done? And why more should Watson care how pious this man was? He’s never cared much in the past to what church any man calls home or wherefore he loves his God.
Watson brushed off this dissonance with the ease one would brush off a cathedral from his shoulder and moved on his trail. Father John was near, for his footsteps plastered on the desert floor lost distance between one another, trailed by scrapes and cuts in the dirt where his feet had been dragging. He knew Watson was coming, that much is clear, for why else would he depart so suddenly with so few provisions into the desert just before Watson arrived into town? In this long month, it is a miracle that both men survived in the desert this long. Very soon, Watson thought to himself, I will finally meet with Father John, and he’ll be long gone, and I’ll have my reward.
The desert stretched in one direction as far as his eyes would permit him to see, bathed in crisp moonlight, dotted by cacti and struggling brush, while to the other direction the desert was bordered by mountains too tall and onerous for any man to climb. Directly ahead, Watson could see, was an abandoned, decaying mining town – rubble amongst the desolate cacti and decomposing brush. Father John was headed there, it seems. The ghost of the priest was clear in Watson’s eye as he follows the father’s tracks, unmoved by the static of the desert dragging steadily forward. After a month of chasing this man in the desert, it appears as though Father John had finally given up and laid his tired and exhausted body beneath a noticeable landmark, protruding from the desert as an obvious invitation for Watson to finish his job.
Slowly Watson approaches the abandoned town. Could never be too careful, he tells himself. He anticipates the worst; often times bandits and rogues would find refuge in the forsaken chambers of these loathsome houses. ‘Perhaps that’s why Father John chose here to hide—he knew if he was killed by the bandits that lived here—I would be surely killed by the same men when I followed his sorry hide here’ thought Watson. As he saunters closer to the town, he begins to grow worried; there is no sign of life save for the tracks left behind by a desperate priest. A truly abandoned mining town, absent from even the lowest of vermin was something of a rarity, but even so this town chills Watson’s very bones.
Watson approaches the town, passing the threshold of its first building, an old unmarked residence that shows no signs of life or any disturbances. Down the main street of the town, old structures tower ominously on either side of the road, shading him from the thick moonlight. Still, he presses on, following Father John’s path. He would have stopped by this time in the night as the moon rises higher and higher into the summer sky to rest, but he is so close now, Father John is here. He had been illusive, keeping Watson from rest for months through the desert and hills of the surrounding areas. An interesting feat for a man Watson initially thought was a decrepit priest, but at last, Watson was within yards of finding the man and ending his life. It’s only a matter of time, he thought, until he could make his way back to town and collect his reward.
John’s tracks wander aimlessly forward down the main road of the rotting town, and Watson follows. His tracks indicate John isn’t entirely sure of where he is headed when, abruptly, his tracks shift suddenly left toward an abandoned market. Watson follows these footsteps slowly, etching closer to the porch of the building where the tracks disappear entirely. A crooked grin stretches across Watson’s face revealing his yellowed teeth, lighting his eyes with fire. He steps forward, one boot powerfully set in front of the other as if to alert the building’s tenant that his time was nearing an end. His boot lands with a hollow thud, shaking the very building to its foundation but then silence.
Watson stops suddenly. ‘What if he’s planned something?’ he thinks to himself. Perhaps this was his plan: wear him down and fake fatigue only to ambush him when Watson least expects it? Or perhaps he truly does have a troupe of bandits hold up in the structure, paid to defend him from his would-be killer?
With new found and cumbersome suspicion, Watson approaches more silently, his boots tapping gently on the porch. The rotted boards threaten to give out from under him with every step, but the prospect of this hellish contract finally being fulfilled arises within him a new sense of ambition. Closer and closer he creeps, careful not to alert any would be dangers. Watson draws his gun and slides open the cylinder to ensure every chamber was filled with a defensive cartridge, just to be safe. The gun cocks and Watson readies himself to enter through the double shutter doors of the building. With a calming sigh he kicks through the door. They fly open, splintering into a thousand fragments as they collide with the wall. Watson charges in forcefully and scans the room with his gun and to his surprise, no one resides within. Still untrusting, he advances forward with his revolver drawn upon the ghosts and dust drifting listlessly within the abandoned hole.
Clearly, John had travelled through here, there’s nowhere else his tracks could have led. Watson’s eyes dart from one corner of the room to another until he notices, tucked in the corner of the building, a staircase climbing away from him.
“Gotcha,” whispered Watson to himself. Still wielding his gun, he steals closer to the stairs and begins his ascent. ‘He must be here’ thinks Watson to himself, growing more and more anxious with each step. Every step elicits an echoing creek. There was no use being stealthy here so he abandons his initial tactic to avoid being seen and allows his boots to tap and creek with every step. There’s no door to cover his entrance, but this serves as no concern to the vigilante for his thoughts have been consumed with curiosities of the priest. What has he done to deserve death by Watson’s hand? Why has he been so keen to Watson’s arrival and wherefore did he attain the survival skills to elude Watson, a man who has been skilled in his line of work twenty-five years past? Consumed with these thoughts, he absently forgets to have his gun at the ready when he reached the top of the stairs.
Stretched in the shadows lay the stark remains of the priest Father John. He was not dead, at least not yet. His old and frail visage is nearly more than Watson anticipated. A sense of pity washes over Watson—another unfamiliar emotion. ‘Why now?’ he thinks. Another contract, another man got the short end of the stick. He’s never cared for his victims before and he would not have this priest be the first.
Watson stands in front of the stairs, glaring at the priest. Beneath a crooked smile and yellow teeth he hides his uncertainty and enquiring sentiments. He’s unsure whether or not Father John can actually see him through the dimly lit room, lightened by only two small windows on the street side of the building allowing in the mist insignificant bouts of moonlight. It was no matter, though. With several short, heavy steps, Watson inches forward with his gun drawn.
“I’ve been lookin’ for you,” grunted Watson.
Father John releases several guttural hacking coughs before he begins to speak. “Yeah, I know you have. An’ I’ve been doin’ a pretty good job of hidin’ from you if I say so m’self.”
In his sickened state, Watson is yet more surprised that John has made it so far without being caught by him or any passing troupe of bandits. Still, curiosity rises within him. Why has this man struck him so? And furthermore, why does he continue to care for his life? Perhaps years of hunting have finally caught up with him and he’s become too old for the business. Regardless, he still has a contract to carry out.
“You know why I’m here, don’t ya?” threatens Watson.
“Yeah, I know you. I also know why yer here.”
Fearless. Father John is aggressively fearless. Many a man is struck with fear and cowardice in their final minutes, but not this man. For a moment, Watson wonders if Father John perhaps more than a man? Foolish, he decides, to fancy a man more than a mortal. He carries on with his threats.
“Then you know what I have to do, then?” hints Watson as he raises his gun, poised directly between the old priests eyes.
“I also know yer not ready ta shoot me. Not yet, at least,” muses the old man.
Shock overcomes Watson’s face, but he quickly recovers with a grimace that would frighten the foulest demon.
“I wouldn’t be so sure, Father,” begins Watson, his words like poison from the fang of a viper. Even to his own tongue the words felt like venom; he hasn’t addressed a man as “father” since he was eight year of age.
“Oh, but I would be, boy,” started Father John. “Tell me, why didn’t you shoot yet?”
“Rude to shoot a man while he’s talking.”
“I’ll believe that when the wolves come home! I see ‘t in yer eyes, boy. Many troubled youth come to me while I was a priest back home, all with that same look in yer eye.”
Shock begins to set into Watson’s face and this time he makes no effort to hide it.
“I know plenty ‘bout you, boy. Where ya come from, where ya been. I e’en know ‘bout that ‘lil fight ya had with yer father all them years ago.”
Uncalled for. Unprecedented and uncalled for. Rage burns within Watson like a blaze, how could he have known? His past, his father, all of it had been forgotten. Forgotten by all but Watson himself. The death of his father weighs heavy on his mind each day. But the man was a louse, detestable by every measure. He deserved to die, especially for what atrocities he committed against his wife . . .
“Speechless, I see. I was too when I was told,” started the priest. “When I—when I heard of a bounty hunter on my trail I got to bein’ curious. First, who wants me dead? No one I could think of. Haven’t hurt a fly so long as I can remember. Then I figured I’d see who was set to do the deed. It wasn’t long before word came ‘bout that you were the man with the gun. Watson, they call ya, righ’? Course, that in’t yer real name, now is’t?”
Color drained from Watson’s face. This man knows too much, survives too long, fights too hard. What game was he at? How did he know so much? No force on Earth could explain his unparalleled intellect. He wants to respond, he wants to take his gun and finish this babbling man for good, but Watson is compelled to stand and listen.
“I may be an old fool, but I am smarter than many have said I is. I found more then I wanted ta, mind you.”
“What are you coming to, Father!?” shouted Watson. Again, that title cut his tongue like a knife as it slid from his lips. Watson feels himself sweating now, what can this man know? Curiosity gets the better of him as he lowers his gun for the first time since entering the house.
The old priest looks up at Watson, his gaze piercing his soul, their eyes locking as the moments ticked by. Silence is eventually broken by the echoing words of Father John.
Nathaniel. So that’s what his name was. It’s been so long ‘Nathaniel’ sounds like just another pseudonym, but it is his. The mere sound of his name sends Watson, or Nathaniel, as he now knows himself back a step with the force of a gunshot. What forces him to the ground, however, is the mention of his mother. He’s never spoken of his mother aloud to a soul, so how is it that a stranger could not only make the connection between his true identity and his previous life, but how could he know a damn thing about his mother?
“How . . .” started Nathaniel to no avail. His legs begin to grow weak, yet he fights to stay standing, gun still in hand.
“Why don’t ya take a seat and we talk ‘bout this like innelectuals?”
Nathaniel allows himself to collapse onto a nearby wall and listens to the priest’s tale.
“’Bout a month ago, an ol’ friend o’ mine tell me I got ah bounty on my head. ‘Parently my God wan’t the same as his God an’ ‘e didn’ like much havin’ two priests in town. So I did th’ best ah could trackin’ down what man ‘e had huntin’ my sorry hide down an’ it wasn’ long before another ol’ friend ah mine tell me it’s the legendary Watson. Ta be honest, I was honored to ‘ave you on my trail, but then I realised if’n I didn’ do sumthin’ soon, I was buzzard food, so ah started diggin’. Anyway turns out yer mom was a good friend of mine. I always did wonder what happen’d to ‘er son after she died. Then I foun’ out ‘bout yer lil’ shoot out with yer father. What would yer mommy say if she could see ya now, hm?”
Nathaniel sits speechless, perched against the wall. As incredulous as the old man sounds, he speaks too much of the truth for it to be lies. The next few hours both men sit in the dark of that abandoned market and Nathaniel listened as Father John retells every story he knew of Nathaniel’s mother. Her name was Julia, which of course Nathanial already knew, and she was raised in the same city as Father John. He was her pastor; he introduced Nathaniel’s parents to one another and even performed the wedding ceremony. He was the priest that baptised Nathaniel as a baby. Father John was the same man who committed both his mother and his father to the Earth. He was the same man who felt inextinguishable guilt for failing to find little Nathaniel after he ran away when he murdered his father, and the same man that sits before Nathaniel now, reliving every story relevant to Nathaniel’s life.
Nathaniel recaps the miserable events of his life to Father John as well, sparing no detail. He tells John of his father’s drunken binges and violence against his wife, and how one day he became just too violent and she became just too frail. He retells the terrible agony he endured in the days following his mother’s murder and how one day he shot his father dead in the midst of another drunken binge. He tells how he came to be in his profession, when he was fifteen years young a man approached him with a unique job in exchange for more than enough money for a fifteen year old homeless boy to make it through a month on his own. Nathaniel takes the time to list every client who paid his way, and every victim his hand had killed. He explains how in the eyes of his clients he sees the gleam of his mother’s eyes, innocent and desperate for revenge, and in the gaze of every victim he’s had the fortune of killing, he sees the gaze of his father—cruel, evil, and deserving of nothing more than death.
Dawn begins to break over the distant mountains as Father John and Nathaniel finish their discussion. Now Nathaniel understands the dissonance he experienced while chasing his contract. How can he be expected to kill the priest that wed his parents and baptised him? It dawns on Nathaniel as the sun begins to rise that he still has a contract to fulfill, yet for the first time Nathaniel is unsure of his ability to carry out his promise. His gun had left his hand some time in the night and now resides by his side, still loaded and eager to spill new blood. Nathaniel glances down at the gun, illuminated by the first light of the coming day when he decides what he shall do about his contract.
“Father, it is already morning, we’ve been talking all night and we can’t stay here long. Bandits are sure to seek refuge here sooner or later,” states Nathaniel as he rises from his seated position.
“And what do ya suggest we do ‘bout it? I ain’t in no fit position ta be walking around,” admits Father John. It’s true, his arduous journey has left him frail and fragile, but they have to move, lest they find themselves the victims of unfortunate circumstance.
“True, but be that as it may, we can’t stay here. Come, let us walk outside and get out of this molded carcass of a house,” Nathaniel suggests with a crooked grin. Lending his hand to help the old priest up and he accepts gratefully.
Both men make their way out of the market and into the open street, the sun just high enough in the sky to clear the titanic mountains. Nathaniel saunters ahead, creating distance between himself and the Father. The priest stops, stands in the middle of the road, for he expects what happens next.
Nathaniel cocks his gun a third time and directs it at Father John. “You knew it would come to this, even with your stories,” he proclaims.
Stunned, yet accepting, Father John starts, “A fool would think ‘e can change a man over night.”
“And a right fool you are.” Hisses Nathaniel as he rests his finger on the trigger. He readies himself, gently pulling back on the trigger, expecting to fire when he stops. Nathaniel has a habit of looking his victims in the eye, not so much as an act of respect as it is an act of pleasure. Every victim he’s encountered has his father’s eyes and he revels in the pleasure of killing his father again and again, but in the eyes of the Father, he sees the eyes of his mother. Innocence, stability, comfort. Home. Every quality embodied by his mother he once again witnesses in the eyes of the Father. Each year he has lost with her at the hands of his father once again reveal themself in the eyes of the Father.
Disbelief washes over Nathaniel as he drops his revolver. How could he kill this man? He’s done nothing; a simple squabble between men about God is no reason to have each other killed. The gun descends to the dirt and lands with a deafening crack.
The gunshot blasts throughout the town, shaking this once busy mining town at its very foundation. Echoing from wall to wall, Nathaniel’s ears are left ringing from the deafening shot from the gun. As the sound clears the air, the town was left as empty as when he first stumbled across it. Slowly, Nathaniel scans the scene to discover where the bullet has travelled. The answer arrives as suddenly as the gunshot sounded.
Father John hunched himself forward, grabbing his gut and writhing in pain for a moment. Then, just as slowly as Nathaniel fell to the ground earlier last night, Father John descended back to the dirt as limply as a rag doll would fall from a shelf. Nathaniel bolts desperately to Father John, reaching him just as he collides with the earth.
“Father . . . Father John! Speak to me, Father!” whispered Nathaniel to the priest, holding his limp body, blood flowing from his gut onto the ground, producing a pool of foul ichor. Father John was dead before Nathaniel could react.
Tears pooled in Nathaniel’s eyes, but he quickly shoves them away. He lets the Father’s body fall to the ground from his arms as he rose. For a long moment, Nathaniel stands above the priest’s lifeless body, above his priest’s lifeless body.
After a moment he bows his head and tips his hat in one final salute of respect to a man who, in one night, had spoken to him more than any man had. The man who gave Nathaniel back his name, and perhaps even his faith. Nathaniel retrieves his revolver from the ground where it lay and returns it to its holder. He looks back one last time at his priest and turns sharply to start forward into the rising sun, whispering to himself, “I am Nathaniel, I am Nathaniel, I am Nathaniel.”