Brody Carlisle halted his horse on the crest of a shrub-covered hill, slapped his Stetson twice sending dust floating skyward, and after placing it back on his head, coaxed a swallow from his canteen.
To the west, the sun slid behind a scattering of tall pillar-like plateaus. Their shadows snaked across the barren valley and across the town of Fontana like a giant disembodied hand with long, flattened fingers, claiming the settlement as its own.
Clicking his tongue, Brody guided his horse slowly down a narrow path toward the town. As he neared the first building – a squat shack with a bullet-riddled barber’s sign hanging from one squeaky hook – a dog, hidden somewhere behind the buildings, announced his arrival with a series of long low howls. The wide dirt road, splitting the town in two, remained vacant. The hairs standing on his arms told Brody he wasn’t alone; someone watched.
Making his way between a closed tannery and another building that displayed an assortment of hand tools and a bag of grain in its dirty window, Brody headed toward the far end of Fontana where the only stone building in town stood. Even in the fading light, the broad white letters that spelled “SHERIFF” were easy to read.
His horse huffed and slowed as they neared the building. Brody clicked his tongue again and urged him forward. Once in front of the sheriff’s office, Brody slid to the hard ground, tied off his horse and headed for the entrance.
He pushed on the door and stepped inside a small square office where a single jail cell occupied the length of the far wall. Candles provided flickering light from wall mounted plates on either side.
“Well, who do we have here?” A large man with thick mutton chops framing a balding scalp sat leaning back in a chair. His booted feet propped up on a small dust-covered desk and his hands behind his head.
“Sheriff Walter Cummings?”
“I know who I am,” the sheriff growled. “I asked who you are.”
Brody dug a hand inside his grey duster and pulled out a silver star. He held it out giving Cummings a good view of the word “Marshal” stamped on its face and walked over to the cell. “Name’s Carlisle, but you can call me Brody if you wish.” He rubbed the rough iron rails of the jail door. “Is this solid?”
“Solid as the day it was built.” Cummings sat up, running a hand over his head. “What’s this about?”
Brody found a stool and picked it up. He placed it in front of the desk, shook his coat behind him, exposing the Army Colt revolver holstered at his hip before sitting down. “Town seems quiet.”
“It’s dusk.” Cummings coughed. “Folks turn in early 'round here.”
Brody narrowed his eyes. “Is that right?”
Brody silently counted, keeping his eyes locked with the old man’s. When he reached ten he slapped the table with a loud crack.
Cummings jumped, tipped to one side, and grabbed the edge of the desk just before toppling over.
“I need a drink.” Brody smiled, holding in a laugh at the sheriff’s expense. “You have a tavern 'round here?”
One side of the sheriff’s mouth twitched upward as if it tried to smile but had forgotten how. “No tavern, but the guest house has a bar with halfway decent rot-gut.”
“Perfect.” Brody stood and kicked the stool behind him. He waved a hand at the door. “Lead the way.”
“Um, okay.” Cummings stood, scratched his cheek as if he were lost, and then made his way around the desk.
Brody cleared his throat and pointed behind Cummings toward a heavily scuffed belt and pistol hanging from a hook on the wall. “You might not want to leave that.”
“Oh, right,” he said, frowning as he retrieved his weapon. “Expecting trouble?”
Brody backed away from the door, allowing Cummings past. “You never know.”
Once outside, Cummings buckled his belt around his waist allowing the pistol to hang low on his thigh.
Brody’s horse whinnied and pulled at his rope.
Cummings flinched. “Kinda skittish, huh?”
“He’s green broke.” Brody approached the steed and rubbed his neck, calming him. “Still a bit nervous around strangers. He’ll be fine. Let’s go.”
Shaking his head, the sheriff crossed the street. Now nearly full night, the town was blanketed in deep shadows. The sun was reduced to a soft purple glow in the west. In the east, a crescent moon crept over the hills starting its nightly journey.
Cummings walked slowly toward a two-story building with an oil lamp burning on each side of its double doors. “You never did say what your purpose was in town.”
“Well, at the moment,” Brody said, “it’s to sample that rot-gut you promised.”
Cummings sighed and shook his head. Once he reached the double doors, he pulled one open and held it for Brody.
As with the rest of Fontana, the guest house wasn’t much to look at. The main floor was a simple, wide room with a short counter situated at the far wall. A small bar sat to the left and four round tables scattered throughout with spindle chairs overturned on top of them. A candelabra with two candles provided light from the bar. To one side of the counter and through a wide archway, was a landing and the first couple steps to a set of stairs that Brody assumed led to the second floor. Aside from their presence, the building appeared deserted, but the feeling of being watched was back. Brody rested a hand on his revolver, took a step toward the counter then stopped, satisfied no one hid behind it.
“Sheriff,” Brody headed for the bar, tapping a table as he passed by. “How about righting those chairs while I get the drinks?” He grinned as he heard the clatter of chairs being set on the hardwood floor. Once behind the bar, he found a single square bottle half-filled with clear liquid on a shelf next to two tall shot glasses. Grabbing the bottle with one hand and the glasses with the other, he strutted back to the table.
“Have a seat,” Brody said as he placed the glasses on the table then poured them each a double. He sat down, slapped the cork back in the bottle and slid one shot to the Sheriff, spilling a bit of the liquor on the table. “What should we toast to?”
Cummings licked his lips, wiped sweat from his brow then shook his head. “I think I’ll pass.”
“It’s not a request.” Brody leaned forward and stared into Cumming’s eyes. He held the gaze for a second then smiled. “So, what’ll it be? To good fortune, a healthy life?”
“Uh, I don’t know.” Cumming’s hand shook as he lifted the glass. “How about to family?”
“I like that!” Brody drummed his hands on the table then lifted his drink. “To our families, may they live a long and prosperous life.”
Brody watched as Cummings downed his double in one gulp then lifted his own to his lips. He stopped just short of his mouth. The hard, acrid fumes filled his nostrils as he lowered his shot.
“Something wrong?” Cummings asked.
Brody nodded. “I just realized I can’t drink to my family.”
“No,” Brody repeated. “You see, the last of my family died, oh, I guess it’ll be ten years this fall. It was my father. He was shot in the back by a coward.”
“Oh, sorry for your loss.”
“It’s alright. I was never close to him. Only met him once.” Brody leaned forward, studying the sheriff. “Before his funeral that is.”
“I was different back then. I had a career in the Army, actually made Captain, but there was something about seeing my father in that coffin all dolled up with makeup and flowers stuffed in his pockets to hide the stink; It’ll change a man.”
“Is that when you joined the Marshal Service?”
“What?” Brody cocked his head then waved. “Oh, the badge? I took that off a lawman two months ago. He didn’t need it anymore, being dead, and all.”
“You killed him?”
“I had to,” Brody said. “He made the mistake of getting in the way of finding my father’s killer.”
“What’s his name? The killer that is.” Sweat poured from the large man’s brow. “I might be able to help you find him.”
“Oh, I’ve got that covered.” Brody grinned. “But I will give you my father’s name, Henry Wilcox. Ring a bell?”
Sheriff Cummings eyes widened. He stumbled to his feet, fumbling for his pistol.
Two shots echoed in the empty room. The sheriff fell, blood soaking through his dirty brown shirt.
Pain stuck Brody’s chest like a sledgehammer. Dropping his revolver as he fell to his knees, he pressed his chest. It was hot and sticky wet. As he pulled his hand away, he gasped. The old sheriff’s body shimmered as if it was under water. It continued this way for what seemed like an eternity before its form gave way to the floor beyond, becoming as transparent as the shot glasses he had just handled. A moment later, Cummings evaporated completely and disappeared.
Brody, too weak to stand, fell to his butt and dug his heels into the floor, scooting back. Fear and disbelief commanded him now, making his breath quick and shallow. The pain in his chest intensified as if he was dropped into a bonfire. He tried to scream but it caught in his throat as horror strengthened its grip. His once solid legs now shimmered in the same, watery way that the Sheriff had.
“No!” Brody managed to yell just before his body disappeared.
Bright sunlight shone in through the windows of Fontana’s guest house and into the main reception area, highlighting shelves filled to the brim with plastic guns, shiny sheriff badges and full-color brochures detailing the short history of the town.
The double doors were pulled open and a tall man in his twenties, wearing a bright white hat, oversized chaps, blue jeans, and checkered shirt strolled in. He was escorted by a group of five people who strained their necks to take in the sights of the room or held their smartphones in front of them.
The area where the bar stood was sectioned off with a thick brown divider rope. The man hurried the group toward the divider and then turned to face them.
“Alright, folks,” he said. “Fontana’s hotel is the site of the most noteworthy shootout in the town’s history. This is where, in 1871, the outlaw Brody Carlisle lured Sheriff Walter Cummings with the notion of having a drink, and then shot the man dead. But luck wasn’t on Carlisle’s side. Sheriff Cummings, although mortally wounded, managed to get off a shot of his own, killing the outlaw and ending his spree of murder that spanned from Texas all the way to the heart of Arizona. Estimates are that Carlisle was responsible for fourteen killings, possibly more.”
The guide leaned in holding a hand beside his face. “Some say that the ghosts of Cummings and Carlisle haunt Fontana and relive their duel every night. If you’re staying for the evening tour, which meets here at dusk, perhaps you too will get to witness their famous duel.”
“Well Folks, that’s the end of our tour. I hope you enjoy your stay at Fontana Ghost Town and don’t forget to visit the gift shop where you can get a vintage style portrait of yourself in authentic western attire. So long, Partners!”
Bio: TJ Marshall began writing in 2011 with his discovery of F2K. Since then he has used the skills learned there and in WVU’s MFA program to publish one fantasy novel, Finder’s Tome, and currently has a second novel, The Struggles, currently in editing.