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Fiction Western

Houck, Arizona

May 1892

           “You really think you’re going to get away with this?” Calvin Roach asks. “You’re not even wearing masks. I know who you are.”

           Lothar Hoke pokes his shotgun through the teller’s window. “Well, Cal, if you know it’s me, then you know I won’t hesitate to blow that spittoon you call a face off your shoulders.”

           “Give them the money, Calvin,” says Arthur Ashton, the bank president.

           Roach slowly puts the bank’s money in Lothar’s saddlebags. Roach is  5’ 2” but fearless, with a sharp tongue, and is intensely loyal to Ashton. Portly, with hangdog features and sallow skin, Ashton lives well and would like to continue to do so.

           “You won’t get very far If you’re stupid enough to rob the town you live in,” Roach says.

           “We were smart enough to notice you two hard workin’ scallywags stay late every Thursday night,” Lothar says. “Smart enough to get you to unlock the door.”

           “I should have known you weren’t here to deposit money.”

           “A withdrawal’s more like it,” Lothar says, chuckling.

           “Hobey still holdin’ our horses?” Lothar asks his son, O’Hara.

           O’Hara quietly swings open the front door.

           Hobey is drawing on his sketch pad.

           Tousled-haired with big ears, a wide nose, and big brown eyes, fourteen-year-old Hobey Hoke has the mind of a boy half his age but is an exceptional artist.

           “Hobey! Mind the horses!”

           Hobey smiles dumbly at his brother. “We’re gonna be rich, aren’t we, O’Hara? Then I can go to art school.”

           “Not if we get caught, so keep those horses still and be quiet!”

           O’Hara moves toward Hobey. “What are you drawing?”

           Hobey shows O’Hara a portrait of a woman with fine features wearing a feathered hat.

           “Who’s that?”

           “I dreamed about her, but she’s your friend.”

           Mussing Hobey’s hair, he goes back inside.

           “Streets are clean, Pa.”

           “Unlike you,” Roach says. “I could smell you vermin from the other side of town before you got here.”

           Snarling, Herrick Hoke rushes the cage, slamming his gun butt against Roach’s head. Roach collapses, groaning.

           “You want some too, Artie? Fill those saddlebags.”

           At 6’ 4”, twenty-four-year-old Herrick is known for his explosive temper, his devotion to his Navajo heritage, and the pride he takes in his name, which means “army leader.” He wears an open vest that displays his muscular physique, dresses in buckskins, sports turquoise rings and sterling silver necklaces, and has an impressive mane of long black hair. His nineteen-year-old twin brothers, Myles, and O’Hara are named for two of the few friends their father made while in the Union Army. Myles, the stronger of the two, dresses and acts like Herrick but is so ashamed of his stutter he seldom speaks. O’Hara has adjusted to the white man’s culture. He wears dungarees, and work shirts, keeps his hair short, and his anger buried.

           The boys are the sons of Lothar Hoke, who outside of being an unsuccessful chicken farmer and a mean drunk, is known for his marriage to Chenoa, or “White Dove.” With a snow-white beard, a crest of silver hair weathered features, and a hard, intense stare, Lothar uncomfortably reminds the people of the abolitionist John Brown.

           Although they are considered a founding family, the Hokes are unrepentant troublemakers, who prompted the town council to change the town’s name from Hoke to Houck.

           Lothar grabs the saddlebags.

           “You’re stealing from your neighbors,” Ashton says.

           “They’d steal the coins from a dead man’s eyes,” Lothar snarls. “When White Dove was dying from tuberculosis, not one of my neighbors lifted a finger to help. Even Doc Stone said he’d never tend a squaw.”

           “You never tried to help yourself, except to other people’s cattle,” Ashton says.

           “If I stole a few beeves, I done it to feed my boys.”

           “You picked fights and shot up the town whenever you got drunk.”

           “And I spent many a night in jail for it, while bigger offenders like your boy, Andy, walked around free. Andy and his pack of gun-toting snakes took potshots at the twins…”

           “They were target shooting.”

           “And Myles and O’Hara were the targets. They threw eggs at Hobey, beat him, and they didn’t get charged. Ralph Trower poisoned our drinkin’ water – no charges. The Crosby boys assaulted my wife – no charges.”

           “But I defend my mother’s honor and I end up spending six months in the penitentiary,” Herrick adds.

           “You nearly killed the Crosby’s, Herrick,” Ashton replies. “They both spent a month in bed. Ezra still walks with a limp. So, now you think stealing from everyone will make your lives better. The moment you leave, Vern Steele is going to track you down.”

           “Let Sheriff Steele come after us,” Lothar replies. “I’m still carrying one of  Vern’s bullets in my leg. I’d love to return the favor.”

           “You were holding a knife to a saloon girl’s neck. He could have killed you.”

           “I was blind drunk. Wasn’t responsible for my actions.”

           “You never are,” Ashton replies. “You do this, and your sons will waste twenty years in jail. And what about the dullard? Hobey can’t survive without you.”

           “You mind your tongue, Art. We’re doin’ this for him, so he can go to school and be an artist. We’re gonna make his dream come true and have enough left over for us to be respectable.”

           “There’s not enough money in all of Arizona for that,” Roach says. He gives Herrick a challenging stare as he regains his feet.

           Herrick smirks, turning away. “Anytime you wanna draw on me little shaver, lemme know.”

           Grabbing a nearby letter opener Roach rushes at Herrick, sinking it in the back of his neck.

           Herrick roars. Unfazed, he extracts the letter opener.

           “Always tryin’ to destroy us when our backs are turned,” he says.

           Herrick shoots Roach in the chest. Roach dies with a look of shock frozen on his features.

           Herrick follows the others outside.

           “Robbery’s one thing. Now we’re on the hook for murder,” O’Hara says nervously.

           “You can’t dip your toe in the water if you want to swim. You gotta dive in all the way,” Herrick replies.

           Hobey fumbles with his gun. “What was that noise? Somethin’ go wrong, Pa?”

           “That was the sound of you goin’ to school, boy,” Lothar replies.

           “Who’s that?” O’Hara asks, pointing at an approaching figure.

           The figure looks up, pausing under a streetlamp.

           “It’s Andy Ashton,” Lothar says.

           Andy’s eyes widen, “ROBBERY! HELP! THE HOKES ARE ROBBING THE BANK!”

           Andy turns to run.

           Sitting in the Sheriff’s office a block away, the ensuing shotgun blast catches the attention of Sheriff Vernon Steele and Deputy Will Renfro.

           “So much for a quiet night,” Will comments.

           Lothar stops his horse at the crossroads, handing his saddlebags to O’Hara.

           “This is as far as you and Hobey go.”

           “They’ll be coming after you. You’ll need us.”

           “Neither one of you can shoot worth a damn and you know it,” Lothar replies. “You take the money. You know what to do with it. We’ll meet you in Chinle in a few days.”

           “There’s still time for all of us to get away.”

           “I been runnin’ all my life. It’s time to stand up. You ain’t no fighter, O’Hara. You’re too gentle. You wanna to help? See that Hobey gets into art school. I know I haven’t been much of a father to you. Instead of protectin’ my boys, I turned away and sank into a bottle. Promise me you won’t be like me, O’Hara. Be yourself.”

           “But I don’t want to be gentle. I want to be a warrior like Herrick and Myles.”

           “Be a man instead.”

           Hobey hands Lothar a scroll. Unwinding it, Lothar sees it’s a sketch of the family.

           “I’ll always keep this with me. Promise me that no matter what happens, you won’t give up on your dream.”

           “Never, Pa.”

           O’Hara moves his horse toward Myles.

           “Know tha...that you…you will always be a pa…pa…part of me,” Myles says.

           Pulling a string of beads from around his neck, Myles gives them to O’Hara.

           Herrick lets out a war cry as they gallop away.

           Sheriff Steele looks out from behind a tree at the Hoke’s home.

           Clean-shaven with squinting ice blue eyes, the thirtyish Steele has been Sheriff for five years and is known for his tailored black suits and meticulous manner of speech. His harsh treatment of lawbreakers has made him feared and respected throughout the county.

           With a thick mustache that makes him look older than his twenty-three years, stringy Deputy Will Renfroe took the job knowing Steele would both educate and protect him.

           “Lights are on,” Will says, swallowing hard.

           Ashton fumbles with his rifle. “Good. That’ll make them easier targets.”

           The rifle slips from Ashton’s sweaty hands, firing. The bullet buries itself in the tree next to Vernon.

           “It’s bad enough I have to worry about the Houck’s without you trying to kill me too.”

           “They murdered my boy. I want them dead!” Ashton says.

           “Maybe you should drop your gun again and see if you can pick one of them off,” Vernon returns.

           Lothar, Herrick, and Myles crouch near the windows.

           “You have ten seconds to surrender,” Vernon yells. “I’ve got a dozen men out here and they won’t be tossing eggs. None of them care whether you walk out or get carried out.”

           A volley of rifle fire makes Vernon and his men duck for cover.

           “You know I never could count, Vern!”

           “Tear that chicken shack apart, boys,” Vernon commands.

           Windows shatter, plaster cracks and the Hoke’s cheap crockery explodes as the posse blankets the house with bullets.

           Myles grimaces as two bullets burrow into his chest.

           Herrick runs to help him. Myles opens his mouth to speak, but only blood comes out.

           Herrick looks at Lothar, shaking his head.

           Screaming, Lothar empties his rifle at the posse.

           Will’s body jerks as he’s hit in the shoulder.

           Ashton dives to the ground. Lying flat, he covers his head, whimpering.

           Vernon lets loose with a withering volley of bullets from his rifle. The bullets embed themselves in the walls, shred the worn curtains, and bang off the pots and pans in the kitchen.

           The front door bursts open. Firing a gun in each hand, Herrick lets out a war cry.

           Two of Vernon’s men die in the hail of bullets.

           Vernon fires, hitting Herrick in the chest and arm.

           Herrick continues to move forward, letting out a war-whoop.

           Taking aim, Vernon hits Herrick between the eyes.

           Herrick staggers but continues to shamble toward them.

           “What is he, some kind of medicine man?” Will asks.

           “No. He’s just a man.”

           Vernon shoots Herrick between the eyes again. Herrick stiffens, plummeting face forward.

           The posse turns the Hoke’s home into a bee’s nest of bullets.

           Lothar’s laughter cuts through the smoke-filled air. “You can fire at me for a week. You ain’t gonna get me.”

           Lothar feels a gun pressing against the back of his head.

           “I’ll have to remember to lock the back door next time.”

           “You’re out of next time’s, Hoke,” Vernon says.

           “Why’d you murder an innocent boy?” Vernon asks.

           “Nobody in this town was ever innocent, least not when it came to my family. Before you was Sheriff,  Myles and O’Hara got beat up by two saddle tramps just for walkin’ with their schoolmates. They was white girls. You know what I did? Opened a bottle and told ‘em to toughen up. Otherwise, I done nothin’.”

           “You’ve done plenty. I heard you cut out some saddle tramp’s tongue.”

           Lothar chuckles. “Didn’t like what he said to my wife. When I married White Dove, we knew our hate had to be as stronger than the hate that was comin’ to hurt us.”

           “You were the first husband and wife couple I ever jailed for assault.”

           “Couple of times, wasn’t it?” Lothar comments. “When it was just me and my woman, we never worried about what kinda hell our kids was gonna go through. I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t fight for them.”

           “Herrick didn’t need your help.”

           “Yeah, but he ended up bein’ the most damaged. He was the defiant leader, the trouble-makin’ halfbreed, always havin’ to prove himself. He suffered, Vern, and I never thanked him for protectin’ his brothers the way I should have.”

           “He died a warrior. That’s what he wanted.”

           “And O’Hara and Hobey are  just as broken as he was, especially Hobey.”

           Vernon glances at the sketch of the Houck’s Lothar has tacked to the wall.

           “So, this is all about Hobey, isn’t it?”

           “He’s one of the holy people. He drew a picture of  White Dove layin’ in bed sick. The  next day she started coughin’.”

           “Maybe Hobey should have worked in a carnival predicting the future instead of being a bank robber. White Dove was probably already sick for months. You were just too drunk to notice. Where’s O’Hara?”

           “Gone.”

           “And the ten thousand dollars?”

           “Hid.”

           “You’re going to hang if you don’t tell me.”

           “I’m gonna hang if I do. I told you. I shot Ashton’s boy. And I ain’t gonna give these yahoos their money back. Let ‘em go bankrupt.”

           Vernon leaves the cell room, closing the door behind him.

           Ashton is waiting for him in the office, wearing an anxious look.

           “Is he suffering?”

           “He will be once he eats Ma Smalley’s cooking.”

           “Did he say where the money is?”

           “No.”

           “At least he’ll hang for killing Andy.”

           “He didn’t do it. “

           “He confessed. That’s good enough for me.”

           “A shotgun blast killed your boy. I took a lot of guns from the Hokes. Not one was a shotgun.”

           “…O’Hara…,” Ashton says.

           “Yes.”

           Ashton sighs. “I thought he was the only decent one in the whole pig stye. ”.

           “You know the old proverb, Arthur. When you wallow with pigs you get dirty.”

           Maura Moncrief passes Room 12, catching a glimpse of dozens of drawings hanging on the wall.

           Peering in, she sees Hobey sitting on the floor drawing on a sketch pad.

           She looks over Hobey’s shoulder. He’s drawing a picture of a muscular Indian with a gun in each hand.

           “That’s really good. Who is that?”

           “My brother, Herrick. I think he’s dead.”

           “I’m sorry,” Looking around the room in amazement she asks, “Did you draw all these pictures?”

           The boy smiles broadly, his uneven teeth making him look like a jack-o-lantern.

           “I’m gonna be a great artist.”

           “I would say so.”

           O’Hara enters the room. He nods, smiling sheepishly, entranced by the woman’s stylish red hair, expensive clothes, and shapely figure.

           “I was just admiring this young man’s work.”

           She sees a picture of a woman in a feathered hat. It’s the same one she’s wearing.

           “Hey, that’s me.”

           “I drew it from my mind.”

           “He means his memory,” O’Hara quickly offers. ”He saw you in the lobby.”

           She notices a sketch of O’Hara hanging nearby.

           “That’s incredibly accurate.”

           “Hobey has a gift. I’m enrolling him in the Chinle School of Arts.”

           “Yeah. We’re gonna use the money we got from robbin’ a bank to help me become a famous artist.”

           O’Hara’s mouth goes dry. “He’s exaggerating.”

           Maura smiles. “You don’t look like bank robbers. Say, I got an idea. If I buy the supplies, do you think he can paint a portrait of me?”

           “What do you think of that, Hobey?” O’Hara asks.

           “I’m gonna be an artist!”

           “I’m singing tonight. How about Hobey gets started beforehand? We can have dinner up here and he can work on my portrait.”

           O’Hara smiles dreamily as he watches Maura leave.

           He turns to Hobey. “You can’t ever tell anyone we robbed a bank.”

           “Not even your friend?”

           “No.”

           “Do you think the money is bad luck?”

           “Of course not. It’s going to help you become what you’ve always wanted to be – an artist.”

           “Then how come Pa, Herrick, and Myles aren’t here yet?”

           “They’re fine.”

           “No, they’re not. Not in my dreams.”

           Hobey reaches under the bed, pulling out a sketch of Herrick and Myles laying on a slab. Lothar stands nearby, looking up at a noose.

           Hobey twitches in his sleep.

           O’Hara sits in a nearby armchair, glancing at Hobey as he looks through his sketches. He studies a series of disturbing pictures, one of Herrick screaming, a gun in each hand as blood leaks from his body; a ghostly rendering of Myles slumped against a window, and a drawing of Andy Ashton lying in the street with a gaping hole in his back, the word MURDERER scribbled across the bottom of the page.

           When O’Hara looks up at Hobey, his brother is staring back at him.

           “Why did you draw such scary pictures?”

           “I saw them in my sleep.”

           “They’re just dreams, Hobey.”

           “No. They’re real. We have to go home, O’Hara.”

           Hobey runs through town toward the jail as O’Hara and Maura step off the train endeavoring to catch up.

           “Thanks for coming with us,” O’Hara says.

           “I had to. Hobey hasn’t finished my portrait.”

           Adjusting his sling, Will opens the door. “Sheriff, we got company.”

           Vernon comes out of the backroom, scowling when he sees Hobey. O’Hara and Maura soon catch up.

           “You can set my Pa free now,” Hobey says. “I came back to make things right. Pa didn’t kill Andy Ashton, I did. Andy used to beat me and made fun of me. I wanted to get even, so I blasted him. I started seein’ it over and over, so I threw the shotgun away, but it didn’t help.”

           “Anything else?”

           “We brought the money back I was gonna to use for school. It’s got blood on it. I don’t want it. I’m not gonna use it to become an artist. I’m gonna take my punishment.”

           “I can’t help you, boy,” Vernon says.

           “Why not?”

           “We hung your father yesterday.”

May 19, 2022 18:15

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2 comments

Quiriano Du Prie
14:24 May 29, 2022

Great story, was fun to read and nice twist at the end.

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19:46 May 29, 2022

Thank you!

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