August 12, 2020

Playing for Keeps

What led me to this place in life…

Sweat dripped down my right arm, mixing heavily with streams of warm blood in the cool morning air.

My hand griped the sword tightly, trembling from the weight. I stared reluctantly at my opponent, former friend and defender of the kingdom, now turncoat with morals more precarious than the chance of rain on a cloudy day.

“It doesn’t have to be this way!” I pleaded earnestly, hoping to bring sense to the dire situation. Without response, he lunged at me, sun gleaming off his blade, light dancing in the nearby dirt. I tried to move but was too slow, fatigue weighing me down like wet bags of cement.

Our blades echoed on the breeze as my body collapsed, weaponless, and in immense pain. My assailant, hovering over me, prepared to deliver the final blow — and for what? I glanced through his legs at the bag of jewels resting peacefully near the stream, a symbol of how meaningless the last seven years have been.

“It’s time to die…” He growled through husky tones

“Are you boys thirsty?! I’ve got juice and cookies if you’re interested!

“Mooooom!!! You’re bothering us! Go away!”

“I thought you might want a snack. You’ve been playing a long time,” she called out from the nearby patio.

“We don’t want a snack mom! Please leave us alone!” Having scrambled to my feet, I peaked over the dirt ledge in an attempt to display the discern on my face, while my friend made circles in the mud nearby.

“Ok…” came a reluctant response. “But be careful when playing in the ravine. Also, remember to include your sister.”

“I don’t wanna include her, she smells!”

Victory in hand, I returned to a somewhat displaced partner, who seemed unenthusiastic about continuing our previous scenario.

“Let’s not play knights anymore, I wanna play cops and robbers…” he mumbled apologetically.

“Okay!” I exclaimed, gratitude spreading across my companion’s face. We grabbed our loot and started running down the winding chasm; south of my backyard.

How many days have passed since we’ve been on the run? My partner in crime (an uncharacteristically thin fellow who’s weakness for money was surpassed only by his love of sweets) held the bag of cash firmly in his bony hands, never once letting our meal ticket leave his sight. The quiet night, while beautiful to some, held a silence enveloped by fear. Every noise in the distance, from crickets singing, to twigs snapping, threatened to give away our presence.

All seemed safe, for the moment. My mind comprehending the chance of success; free air bathed in possibility. Cut short, when the bullet pierced my left ankle. My companion, usually one of questionable loyalty, in that moment, proved quite the opposite. I watched in disbelief as the bag of cash left his care, falling loosely out of reach. Bills fluttered before my eyes, bullets lit the night sky like swarms of fireflies. My friend, ignoring our surroundings, dragged me behind a nearby log.

“We’re in this together!” He slurred through gritted teeth, pulling out twin pistols housed in his back pockets. “Until the end…”

Tears welled in my eyes. Whether from my newly acquired wound, or the noble actions of my comrade, I couldn’t tell.

“Whatcha doin?!” A grating voice called out, located high on the ledge behind us.

“Oh my god Shelby you’re so annoying! Leave us alone!”

“I wanna play too!” She demanded, having already moved onto her tummy, climbing down the questionably steep dirt-walls surrounding us.

“This is a boys only game” I retorted smugly. “So go back into the house!”

Covered in dirt from her excursion, but standing triumphant, the barely two foot tall girl pointed towards the cloth-sack of marbles; half open and slightly spilled. “Those are my marbles, so you have to let me play or give them back!”

We had no idea how many months she’d been hunting us; Dead-eye Darla. Unlike other bounty hunters, her reputation for shoot first and shoot later put outlaws to shame. We’ve been in countless scrapes before, my partner and I. The shootout at Harold’s Mill, turf war with the Barnabe brothers, even that sticky situation in Limestone Caverns. Yet, as it stands, with the desert sun burning our parched skin, and our exit blocked by the most savage killer this side of William’s Peak; I don’t know if we’ll survive.

“Now!” I screamed, vaulting back across the log, drawing my six-shooter. “Let her have it!”

Vultures circled above, watching, waiting, as we unloaded on Darla, every shot missing it’s mark as she weaved almost dream-like through the onslaught. “I’m out!” My partner called. His fingers fumbling desperately through pockets and pouches.

“We only have one chance!” I cried, reaching behind me, grasping the hardened stick of dynamite.“Get down!”

An eerie calmness filled the air, as we waited with bated breath. The slight whistling of a wick counting down, our assailant’s footsteps getting closer, even the rapid breathing of us both, huddled together in apprehension, seemed to fade into nothing…

Nothing. No explosion, no noise whatsoever. Cautiously, I peered over the log, only to witness a sight so horrifying, my heart froze in terror.

Shelby’s lip quivered, her eyes red, a small lump forming slightly above the left eyebrow; where the tiny pebble had struck. “I’m telling Moooooooooommmm!!” She bellowed in a fit of tears and pain, scrambling out of the ravine and towards the patio door.

“No wait!” But my words fell silent, the shackles of fate engulfing me, wrapping around my neck like a noose; darkening the world. Damp from fear and exhaustion, I dropped to my knees. In one final moment of exasperation, I watched as the sky slipped seamlessly between my outstretched fingers. Fleeting, like a shooting star.

What led me to this place in life…

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