Editor’s Note: This story is a bit longer than our usual fare, but we’re publishing it nonetheless because it’s an unusually entertaining work: a western and a mystery and even a bit of a supernatural thriller, set in the early days of America. Enjoy!
“I’m Jo Bobby.”
A gunshot blast rang through the wraparound porch of a colonial-style blue and white house that morning in Wormwood, Tennessee. August 9th, 1830, the hottest day Wormwood had ever seen. A gunshot blast so loud that the nearby sheriff, prune-skinned with a handlebar white mustache, woke up in his bed. The gun holster, cupping his gleaming silver pride and joy, was hanging lazily off his bedpost, adjacent to a snoring whale of a woman who wasn’t his wife. The sheriff gripped both sides of his coarse white nose fur, twisted his fingers, and spat in a nearby bucket.
Jo Bobby rolled backwards out of his wicker chair as his worn cowboy boots flew forward off his feet. When Charlie stretched his sunburnt neck to see the corpse he had just created, it was positioned face down, ass heavenward. He flexed his legs, looking at the tattered moccasins that’d been on his feet ever since he could remember having feet. In contrast, his eyes glanced back at the worn leather cowboy boots, owner presumably dead. He kicked off his old moccasins, revealing his calloused and bruised ground stompers. Journeyman’s feet, as if he’d been walking his entire life. Charlie quickly stuffed his raven’s claws into the cowboy boots. They fit like a glove.
“So far, so good.”
Charlie let his hand fall into the thick black curls of Sonny, a young’un by young’un standards. He was no taller than Charlie’s navel and three times as dirty. Charlie grabbed a fistful. Sonny winced.
“Thought you said this was Bobby-Jo?”
“I can’t read,” Sonny whimpered.
Charlie let go of Sonny’s hair. It was sweaty, full of dandruff. He wiped his hand on his old buckskin jacket. Took a few swipes down, fished out a crinkled “Dead or Alive” poster from his pocket, no bigger than a polished stone on a bolo tie. In the time it took him to unfold it, a salamander crawled over Charlie’s boot and died from the taxing heat.
Peering at the picture of the supposed Bobby Jo, Charlie and Sonny looked like confused jackrabbits. The letters on the poster looked like alien symbols and upside down ‘U’s. He held the paper against the piercing sunlight, squinting at it.
“He look the same to you?” Charlie said with one eye open, daylight claiming the other eye, shifting the poster side to side. Realizing the long term disadvantages of being illiterate.
Sonny didn’t respond, just rubbed his head, brushing off loose strands of hair. Charlie maneuvered Jo Bobby’s body with a foot now covered in smooth stolen leather, to get a look at his face.
“Prolly gonna be hard to tell. You shot him in the face, Charlie. You always gotta shoot ‘em in the face huh, Charlie?”
Charlie looked at his gun, surprised, like he just realized he was holding one.
“I was aiming for his chest.”
He tried to compare the bullet-faced Jo Bobby with the poster. Nowhere in the universe could you find two more completely different people. It was like comparing an apple to a bullfrog. Different in race, size, even their noses: Jo Bobby’s nose was square, while the man on the poster had a hooked nose, the type that’d been broken a few times over. The type that belonged to a disrespectful mouth.
“Sometimes you get, sometimes you get got. Sonny, go inside, you know what to look for, don’t cha?” Charlie commanded, while pushing up the brim of his straw hat with the barrel of his smoking pistol.
A large shadow of himself spread on the front porch as the day moved closer towards noon, the sun looming over Sonny. He lifted his poncho and sprinted up the small steps. As he opened the screen door, a scent of fresh-squeezed lemons perplexed him. Next, he opened the front door and stopped dead in his tracks at what he saw: A decanter riddled with condensation, brimful with golden tea, sitting on a short glass table. His licked his chapped and peeling lips. The sight of the thirst-quenching tea widened his dark eyes, which had seen more than most young’uns. Manifest destiny was a few sandwiches short of a picnic. But it wasn’t every day Sonny saw golden bliss. The liquid reflected in his pupils. He was salivating when suddenly the decanter spoke to him.
“Been a long few days on the road, Sonny? How about a refreshing cool glass of Bobby Jo’s famous iced tea?” the decanter whispered in echoes as droplets strolled down the side of the glass.
“So he is Bobby Jo?”
“What? He is Bobby Jo?” a confused Charlie yelled out.
“That’s what the iced tea said,” Sonny responded.
“Spice Lee’s in there? Sonofabitch stole my mule,” Charlie returned, barging into the place with his gun out.
The door rapidly closed behind them … on its own.
“No Charlie, the iced tea.”
Charlie looked at Sonny sideways. He’d been staring at this dirty child’s face for his whole existence, but just then, he saw himself in Sonny. An odd likeness, like hearing your speaking voice versus how it sounds in your head. He shook off the absurd notion and scanned the front room. Mounted deer and bear heads hanging on opposite walls with a “Hail Yankee” area rug in the center.
“You talkin’ to enanagement objects again, Sonny? What I tell you about that? I know you Indians speak to lots of spirits, but that ain’t one of em, boy.”
“Like momma? She used to talk to wolves.”
“Yep, just like your momma, you never seen her talking to no iced tea, did ya? Not after she smoked the pipe don’t count.”
“It spoke to me Charlie, on Christ it did.”
“Go on, get your drink ya batty child. Anything else starts talking, you shoot it dead.”
“But I got no thumbs, Charlie.”
Sonny revealed his two thumbs after hiding them in his palms, getting a rise out of Charlie.
“Oh, there they are! Look Charlie, separates us from the am-na-mals!”
“You are a damned am-na-mal. Now drink ya damn drink.”
Charlie shook his head and stalked his way to the front of a spiral staircase in the majestic living room. He took each step bowlegged. Before him was a portrait of Jo Bobby riding a black horse through a flaming circle, holding a six-shooter. Underneath it read:
Houston, 1823, Joseph Bobbington the Third
Charlie scoffed and proceeded up the staircase. Sonny put down the empty decanter. He was sprawled on the ground, his belly protruding from underneath his tiny shabby shirt. His head rolled back, dangled in fulfillment.
“Had enough, Sonny?” the decanter whispered.
“I ain’t suppose to talk to you. You enanagment object and all. And I ain’t crazy. I more sane than Charlie, that’s for sure. He talks to his gun.”
“There’s more than just tea in this big ol’ house, Sonny,” the decanter responded.
Sonny raised his eyebrows, looked down and rubbed his belly.
“Like gold, Sonny.”
The pristine spiral staircase seemed endless as Charlie pressed on, looking more and more bowlegged. After twenty minutes and ten flights, he resembled a walking horseshoe. He was confused, and upon looking back he saw an infinite stream of stairs. Both behind him and in front. He picked up his foot and noticed a strange crack in one of the steps. It was ‘V’ shaped, and appeared to be spreading. Five minutes later he walked past the same crack. Charlie exhaled hard and continued mumbling, like all tired men.
“Should’ve drank that spooked tea when I had the chance.”
Charlie was panting heavily while approaching the stairwell rail at the top. His sweat had changed his light brown shirt to a dark gray. He coughed hard from his tobaccy-scarred lungs, which tightened his potbelly. The result of too much cooked bison. While struggling to lift his body up, one of his boots slipped off, and tumbled down the sea of stairs. Two ideas flashed in Charlie’s mind. He ignored them both, letting the sound of the fallen leather echo into nothingness.
“I’ll get it on the way down,” he mumbled to himself.
The top floor had immaculate white carpet, untouched, and brand new. In front of him was a row of numbered rooms with lavender blue doors stretching the entirety of the corridor. Strange painted-on windows at the end of the hall. There were seven doors to be exact, but the only number Charlie recognized was 1. He squinted his eyes at the puzzling sight, then tiptoed sloppily in front of the door. He slowly placed his ear on it and pulled back the hammer on his pistol. Heard a low muttering noise from the other side, indescribable at first. He pressed harder. The sound bubbled up, resembling virtuoso banjo music.
“Hmm, banjo can’t be playing itself.”
He pushed off the door and put a bullet through it. Sonny flinched from the sound, running up the long winding staircase, holding Charlie’s forgotten boot.
“What ya shooting at now, Charlie? Got ya boot by the way. Why you all sweaty?”
“How … how the heck you get up here so quick?”
“It ain’t but a flight, Charlie. I coulda walked it backwards.”
Charlie wiped thick sweat from his brow, opened his buckskin jacket, and swigged from a scarred silver flask.
“Eww, ain’t that scamper juice boiling hot, Charlie?”
“Real men drink hot scamper juice.”
“Charlie! Look!” Sonny cried. “I don’t believe it!” A latent memory in Sonny’s mind was sparked when he took notice of the scenery. A flashback of his mother flipping through an old children’s book. Her brown skin reflected in embers of nearby burning wood. He smiled widely, as Charlie prepared another shot of both flask and pistol.
“The Seven Doors, Charlie, remember?”
“What the heck you talking boy, get yo’ gun out and use them phantom thumbs. It’s someone in there playing the banjo.”
“You scared of a banjo, Charlie?”
“No, Sonny, just do what I say. You don’t hear it?”
“You got it wrong, The Seven Doors, the old children’s story. We in a fairytale, Charlie.”
Charlie peered into the hole he had shot through the door. Inside it was pitch black, with a small spotlight shining down on a floating banjo playing itself. Musical notes and treble clefs waltzed around it in mid-air. He blinked hard, but the image never changed. He drank more hot whiskey.
“I think you right, Sonny. How does the fairytale go?”
“Don’t know, Charlie, I ‘member the pictures though. A fat woman, a horse, an old Sheriff, pretty ladies, and some other stuff. Guess I can’t ‘member now, funny how when you try to ‘member and just can’t, huh Charlie?”
“Pretty ladies like real ladies, or?”
“There was a picture of a big man wielding a six-shooter jumping through flames … but he was at the end.”
“The end, huh?”
A hint of horse sweat plunged into the thick nose hairs of the Sheriff as he galloped to Jo Bobby’s estate. His whale of a not-wife was a tagalong his horse could’ve done without. Much to his surprise, Jo Bobby was leaning back in his wicker chair, unharmed, barefoot, drinking a glistening glass of iced tea. The Sheriff dismounted the poor horse and placed his boots on the hot ground.
“You heard any gunshots this morning? A particularly loud one? Louder than most, I mean.”
“No sir, can’t say I have.”
“Uh, huh. Anything out the ordinary going on?”
“No sir, can’t say they is.”
The Sheriff twisted his moustache while maintaining a keen eye on Jo Bobby, sweat developing on his forehead. He unsnapped his gun holster and granted the shining weapon its first appearance of the day.
“You ain’t sasafrassing me is you, boy?”
“Can’t say I …” His sentence lost merit when the clack! of the Sheriff’s pistol hammer rang into the August air. “That your wife, Sheriff? She looks awfully parched. Care for some iced tea?”
“Step off your porch and ease over here. Something don’t feel quite right.”
“By all means, Sheriff,” Jo Bobby complied as he lifted hisself off the wicker chair. Jo Bobby walked slowly off his porch toward the Sheriff. Despite the mounting sun, his body cast no shadow. The large woman panted heavily, all the while strewn over the back of the horse like a saddle, which caught Jo Bobby’s gaze. With a wave of his hand, a floating decanter of iced tea manifested itself. Bouncing in mid-air.
Hee-Haw! A sharp kick from the horse’s hind legs slid the heavy woman forward and the horse bucked down the dirt path, charging to get away from Jo Bobby.
“Am-na-mals are always the first to know.”
Fright swept across the Sheriff’s face. He was unable to look back at his long-gone horse and overweight not-wife. He aimed the gun at Jo Bobby, his pistol shaking like beans in a can.
“What is you?”
A huge, oceanic shadow developed from behind Jo Bobby. It stretched the borders of his entire house and shrouded the whole estate in darkness. The trigger was immediately pulled on the gleaming silver pride and joy from the Sheriff’s fidgety hand. A thin flagpole jutted out and a piece of cloth unraveled with the word “BANG” on it in big red letters.
“So, how ‘bout that iced tea, Sheriff? Awfully hot out here ain’t it? Don’t worry ‘bout ol’ girl. You ain’t got need of her. You know why.”
Meanwhile, inside the house …
Two fists shook up and down rhythmically, stopping at the same time. The younger hand extended two fingers. The older kept a balled fist.
“Rock beat scissors!” exclaimed Charlie, happier than expected.
“Rats!” pouted Sonny, as he stuffed his hands under his armpits.
“So … we did it fair and square and now I get to choose the door.”
“Just don’t shoot nothing in the face, Charlie,” Sonny spat.
Charlie did his best to decipher which number looked the most attractive as he crept up and down the corridor. He tilted his head at the door with a 3.
“Sorta looks like sideways sweater cows eh, Sonny?”
The reflection of his ragged hand closed in on the golden knob. A shooting sensation of unbelievable cold ran up his arm and down to his hips. He danced involuntarily for a moment, much to Sonny’s amusement. When the mini-jig was up, he twisted the knob. A wall of snow avalanched out and knocked him flat. A grandiose stark-white wolf leaped atop the snow pile Charlie was buried under. Its luminescent crystal-blue eyes landed on Sonny, who whipped out his small derringer. Heavy frost emitted from the wolf’s powerful jaws, and he let his canines show.
“I’ll shoot! I’ve shot things before, I’ll do it again!” threatened Sonny, as he clutched the derringer in both hands.
The wolf, unfazed, slowly crept towards Sonny. A familiarity swept through him, gazing deeper into the abyss of the wolf’s eyes. Flashbacks of his mother and Charlie. The aroma of crackling aged firewood, the clatter of horseshoes, and Native American chants, all charged into his brain. Sonny’s eyes rolled in a circle and he fell backwards. Charlie’s gun erupted from beneath the snow, followed by his arm, then the rest of him.
“Goddamn wolf!” Charlie shouted, as he let a bullet fly at the animal.
The white wolf dodged it by splitting into two identical wolves. Charlie unleashed three more bullets. The force shook snowflakes from his straw hat, inadvertently manifesting six more wolves. The newly formed pack rushed him. A schoolgirl’s scream escaped his mouth: “AIYEEEEE!”
They ran past him, scratching on the first door until they had created a sizeable hole. The self-playing banjo danced out, followed by a string of waltzing music notes and treble clefs.
“I gotta quit drinking scamper juice,” noted Charlie, as he witnessed the fantastical scene before him.
The wolves danced with the banjo, stood on two legs, and descended down the stairs. Like a family of ducks, they all strolled down in a line. Charlie stared in amazement as they exited. The pathway downstairs instantly filled with solid, hard snow, trapping him and Sonny on the top floor. Two doors opened, only five doors left. Charlie glanced at door number two as a small flame sprouted out from the keyhole. Charlie jerked back.
“There’s a dragon in that mother…”
“Language, Charlie,” Sonny muttered, as he raised himself from the floor.
“How long you been down there? You see the dancing wolves too? Dancing with the banjo?”
A look of confusion smacked Charlie’s face. In a panic he reached for his silver flask, but instead a small bouquet of colorful flowers whipped out from the same pocket.
“What the hell is going on? Sonny, what part are we in?”
“Sonny! The dang fairytale, what part is this?”
“What you talking about, Charlie?” Sonny spoke the words, but the voice that came out was Jo Bobby’s.
“Enjoying my boots, Charlie? Can’t take a man’s shoes without walking a man’s miles.”
“That’s why the stairs was like that? I’ll give ‘em back.”
“A bit too late for that, Charlie. Now go on, open door number two.”
Loud, obnoxious sounds squeaked from the floorboards every time Charlie eased closer to the door. Squeak … Squeak ….The fire spewed out even more ferociously. He clamped his hand on the knob. The smell of searing flesh wafted under his nose.
“Ahh! Christ!” Charlie yelled, as he twisted the knob and opened the door.
Behind door number two was a forest with many moving parts. Shadows, horses clattering, and chaos all about.
“Look familiar, Charlie?” Sonny spoke, still with Jo Bobby’s voice.
“The Cherokee tribe?”
“I been waiting for you, Charlie. You walked right into my game.”
“Who is Sonny … really?”
“Whatchu getting at? Out with it!”
“Let’s clear up that flashback, shall we?”
Inside door number two, under a crescent moon, teepees were set ablaze in a dark forest masked with dirt plains. Brightly colored feathers adorned white horses upon which Native American chieftains sat, clashing head on with so-called Americans. They had their pistols drawn. War ensued. Torches were set to erect totem poles. Madness all about the small Native American village.
“Take em all out! Women, children, every last one of em!” yelled the Yankee captain as he unsheathed a long sword with a golden handle.
Arrows darted into the flesh of the so-called Americans, who returned fire with old pistols. The smell of gunpowder filled the clean western air.
“Look familiar, Charlie?” Jo Bobby whispered from the door.
A cloud of smoke was all that remained when the so-called Americans won. Dead bodies lay on the grass. The Yankee captain galloped over to a young Charlie and patted him on the back.
“Hmm, you did good with this one, huh?”
Charlie looked down at his shaking hand. In front of him was a young Native American woman lying lifeless in the grass. A free-falling, lone snowflake descended on Charlie’s cheek and infused itself in an unrestrained tear.
“They said that blizzard would be coming soon. We done what was needed. Move out back to camp, boys!” the Yankee captain cheered as the brigade followed suit and exited the massacre they had created.
Everyone left except Charlie. Remorse riddled his body as he pondered the reality of Manifest Destiny. He slowly approached his victim and maneuvered the woman’s body over. What he saw next changed his life. A two-year old Sonny inside a woven cradleboard. Charlie glanced around to ensure that the troops were gone and spotted six wolves in the distance. They watched him as snow fell harder from the night sky. The essence of a supernatural, or spiritual, occurrence echoed through their exchange of stares, as if the wolves told Charlie to spare the child. He bent down to pick up Sonny inside the cradleboard and an old book dropped to the ground. The cover read “The Seven Doors.”
“Starting to clear up, ain’t it, Charlie?” Jo Bobby whispered through Sonny’s voice.
Charlie stood motionless, an ancient, buried memory displayed like a moving painting. His face was stone still.
“Open door seven.” Sonny spoke with Jo Bobby’s voice.
Without hesitation, Charlie sulked his way to the last door. Once opened, further into the forest was the scene of a small camp. Tents tipped and campfires were doused as the snowfall grew heavier. Flags with single stars on tall posts flopped in the wind. A young Charlie looked down on them from a hill’s edge, the cradleboard stuffed with young Sonny and the “The Seven Doors” book at his side. He peered into the innocent young Sonny’s brown eyes. The quietest two-year-old he’d ever seen yawned heartily and grasped Charlie’s pinky with his palm.
“If I go down there with a Papoose, they go’n to kill him,” young Charlie murmured to himself.
Pressed against a few shrubs to act as a canopy, the cradleboard was tucked beneath it. He climbed down the small hill with the stealth of a bull elephant, pistol out. Luckily, when his feet landed within yards of the camp none of the soldiers noticed.
“Was the plan to kill them all?” Sonny through Jo Bobby’s voice asked from the border of the door, peeking into the living flashback.
“At first … but a pistol with six bullets won’t hold ‘gainst a troop. So…”
“You decided to burn them.”
At the edge of the campground, Charlie sparked a thick log and slowly placed the fire at the corner of the first shelter tent nearby. The flame grew and spread faster on the fabric than intended. The sound of cheers and a distant banjo playing got quieter and quieter. A wall tent caught fire nearby and became lively as the so-called Americans rushed outside. The captain appeared from the emerging group wearing tattered white pajamas, wielding a banjo.
“Charlie! What the hell you doin’, boy?”
His six-shooter lost two bullets. The Yankee Captain owned them now inside his chest. Young Charlie waved the gun at his old comrades, hate fueling their eyes with the fire adding to the effect. He took the log that started it all, burned off a rope holding a horse and mounted. The fire raged across the campground and melted the first layers of skin off the heavy sleepers. Even the weapons were being destroyed, all stacked in another wall tent at the other side of the campground. Young Charlie leaped over the flames on the horse and raced back to the top of the hill, ducking bullets from his former friends. The number 7 door closed.
“The ones that survived died later that month from the blizzard,” Sonny said. “Hefty bounty out on your head after that. You wasn’t Charlie no more, nah, you’s the ‘Coward Yankee Killer’ now. A lone wolf with a cub.”
“What was I ‘spose to do?”
“I enjoyed your company, Charlie.”
With the snap of a finger, Charlie and Sonny were transported back to the porch of the blue and white house. Jo Bobby leaned in his wicker chair, drinking cold iced tea on the hottest day Wormwood had ever seen. He nodded to Charlie, who realized the cowboy boots were back on his feet. Sonny woke up standing.
“Hmm, what happened, Charlie? Why does my mouth taste purple all ‘a sudden?” Sonny queried in his own voice.
Charlie nodded back to Jo Bobby, then looked down on Sonny.
“We was just leaving, Sonny. Let’s go,” Charlie said.
“Tell him the truth ‘bout himself, Charlie,” said Jo Bobby. “A man knowing where he come from is the gold mine of his soul. That’s the whole point of this.”
“Gotcha. Say, so you dead…or?”
“Me? Well, hard to say…I’m someone who existed beyond the rules your kind grew up on. If we meet again, maybe I’ll tell ya. Best get on now, before I change my mind.” Jo Bobby tossed a tin canteen full of tea to Sonny. It was covered in blue woolen cloth. The sound of stagecoach wheels broke the tense concentration taking place in Charlie’s head, trying to figure out what the hell it all meant. The stage was driven by two horses. A beautiful woman with thick blonde curls, wearing a sapphire dress, was holding the reins. Charlie smiled for the first time in ages.
“Pretty ladies,” said Sonny.
“You boys need a ride? We heading down to Nashville, could use some feller company for protection and all. It’s just me and my sisters. We got room for you and the young’un.”
“Haven’t I seen ya’ll before?” Sonny blurted out, scratching his head.
Derrick R. Lafayette has been writing “since I had the strength to lift up a pen. At first I mainly wrote screenplays, but when I tried my hand at fiction-writing it was undeniable that I was meant to be an author. I have two self-published novels, Asbovania’s Demon and God Wants All of Us, both on Amazon. I’ve also had four short stories published in such publications as Red Fez and Drunk Monkeys. My latest novel, Red Chamber, will be released this winter on Amazon, as well as episodically through lndiePublish.”