CROSSROADS #7 The Last Temptation of Micah Foster

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic

Micah Foster, injured, on foot and alone in the brutal San Toranado Desert, comes face to face with a stranger who poses the toughest decision of Micah's life; what would you give to stay alive?

Welcome to Texas, the mid-1880s, and a tiny incidental desert hamlet named Crossroads. It's a little known, seldom spoken of frontier town, snugly nestled beneath majestic mountains along the southwestern border between Texas and Mexico, and morally poised between virtue and corruption. It's a mundane community barely on the maps of this vast region, a unique shade of gray in this harsh black and white world. It's a tiny society unto itself where the sublime sometimes means the surreal. It is a place where wandering souls come for a variety of reasons. For some it's to seek a better life away from the increasingly modernized mayhem of progress. For some it's a place to hang their hat before moving on to their destiny. Still for others it's a sanctuary from the past, a last chance of sorts to start anew.

So welcome, my friend.  Welcome to a town where last chances meet new beginnings.  Welcome to a town on the edge of the American spirit, where the unimaginable is cultivated from the seeds of the human condition. Welcome to a town where the past and the present roll the dice with the future hanging in the balance.

Welcome... to Crossroads.

II=====II=====II=====II====== II=======II======II

CROSSROADS

“The Last Temptation of Micah Foster”

By LW Thunder

II=====II=====II * PROLOGUE * II=====II=====II

What would you do to get something you wanted or needed?

Some might offer money. Some might offer something of equal value in trade. Some may offer personal services. Some may do things otherwise unthought-of. There are even those rare individuals who may go so far as to sell their very souls, metaphorically speaking of course.

What if your very life depended upon a total stranger? That is the premise for our story tonight, the story of Micah Foster, a member of the local cattleman association. He is returning to town after a long trip to Wichita, Kansas where he was part of a cattle drive. The rest of the drovers have elected to spend their time and money in El Paso but not Micah Foster. Aside from being a prominent member in the association, he is a devout family man, a cattle rancher and a member of the church. He is a strong-willed man and well respected member of the community to say the least.

But the harsh San Toranado Desert is hardly discriminatory in its ability to take a man’s life and that’s the predicament that Micah Foster now finds himself in. Thrown from his now missing horse because of a rattler and suffering a severe head injury as a result of the fall, Micah finds himself staggering through a living hell with the burning southwest Texas sun above him and the scorching sands beneath his feet with no water or shade to aid him.

What the injured Micah Foster now needs is a miracle. What he gets may be something entirely different. You see fate is about to deliver to our troubled soul a very sobering proposal, one that may mean life or death, for Micah Foster will soon find himself pondering a soul-searching decision… at Crossroads.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER ONE * II=====II=====II

The midday sun baked the bleached sands of the San Toranado desert. The temperature was about 110 degrees and not even the spiders dared venture out into the blazing heat. A lone figure stumbles across the desolate windswept landscape.

His name is Micah Foster and he is dying of exposure.

“Damn”, he whispers as he watches the last drop of water drip from his canteen onto his tongue.

He squints and shades his eyes as he studies the sweltering scene in front of him. His vision is beginning to blur, a result of the head injury from his fall. His head is throbbing as if a hundred horses were thundering through his brain. Add exposure and the onset of heat exhaustion and Micah Foster is a man in a desperate situation.

“If I can just… stay on the…main trail… maybe someone’ll happen by…” he thinks through the pain.

Something trickles into his right eye. He wipes it away with the back of his hand. He squints down at his hand and grunts. It’s blood, blood from the gash on the right side of his forehead where it struck a rock upon his impact. He rips another piece of cloth from his shirt sleeve and replaces the previous cloth with the new one. He stares at the blood-soaked tatter and blinks hard. He knows his situation isn’t good and that if he doesn’t find shelter of water soon the outcome won’t be good either.

He glances up at the sun overhead. He figures he’s been walking now for several hours covering a few miles from where he fell. He reckoned that he might be about twenty five miles or so from town. He figures if he can cover that ground by nightfall he may have a chance. He presses on, stumbling slightly every other step or so. His thoughts drift to his wife, Jessie and their two boys, Randall and Casey. He chuckles to himself as he remembers Casey’s last words to him before he left for the cattle drive; “Be careful pa.”  

“Heh,” he chuckles, “I guess your ol’ pa done got himself in a heap of trouble at the present, son”.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER TWO * II=====II=====II

Micah’s mind drifts to memories of his loved ones. He remembers how he promised Randall that he’d teach him how to shoot his rifle, something every boy at the age of 12 should know he figured. Micah thought it’d also come in handy if coyotes came wandering into the ranch. They have a liking for cattle and chickens and the boy might need to protect them from such predators while he’s away. Randall was the older of the two boys and the one who seemed to be well grounded in life. He was always there for the chores, gathering firewood, feeding the chickens and the few hogs they keep every year. He was the one that Micah counted on to ‘be the man of the house’ while he was gone. He wasn’t big on schooling but he had the common sense needed to survive in this land. In his mind’s eye he could see Randall, a tall kid for his age, red hair and freckled face, as he helped Micah mend the fences on the ranch. Randall has always said that he was going to be a cattle rancher someday, just like his father. Micah’s chest momentarily swelled with pride at the thought.

Casey on the other hand, well Casey is a bit of a free spirit. At 10 years old he dreams about being a rider in one of those traveling Wild West shows you hear tell about. He’s always talking about leaving town and seeing the rest of the country. Big dreams for such a little fella, Micah thinks. Casey likes to read the newspaper and books to see what’s happening in the rest of the country. Unlike his brother, Casey likes school. Micah remembers the teacher telling him and his wife what a smart child he was and how he asks a lot more questions than the other kids in the class. Yes sir, Casey was going to be the traveling wanderer of the Foster family. A smile creases Micah’s lips.

He pauses momentarily to take off his hat and mop his brow careful not to upset the makeshift bandage around his head. He rubs the back of his neck and closes his eyes. Somehow that seemed to ease the pain a tad bit. He licks his parched lips and places his hat back snugly on his head. He squints out at the flat, dry desert. In the distance he believes he sees an outcropping of rock. It’ may not be much but it might provide him with a little shade for a spell. He begins to walk with a little more purpose in his unsteady stride. His thoughts return once more to his family, this time to the love of his life, his wife Jessie.

He remembers how they met fifteen years ago at a church picnic in Abilene. He was riding drag on a cattle drive was sent into town for some last minute supplies. On his way through the town he passed a big gathering on the front lawn of a church. As he passed a young woman happened to turn and catch his attention. She had long blonde hair and was wearing a blue and white gingham dress. She wore her hair pulled back into a long ponytail and around her neck was a small wooden cross on a yellow ribbon. Just as he passed the throng she glanced up. Their eyes met and Micah felt a spark in his heart. It was right then and there that he knew she was the one for him. He tipped his hat to her and she smiled demurely. He didn’t get to talk to her that day but made sure that on the way back at the end of the drive, he stopped in Abilene and inquired about the blonde haired woman in the blue and white gingham dress and the wooden cross around her neck. He was informed that she was Jessie Haynes, the youngest daughter of the right Reverend Tobias Haynes. He remembers how intimidating it was asking the Reverend to court Jessie. To Rev. Haynes, Micah was nothing more than a drover, a cowboy, a saddle tramp and not at all what he wanted for his daughter as a suitor.

Somehow Jessie convinced her father to let Micah escort to the Sunday Social. Micah grins as he recalls how gruff the Reverend was and how Jessie took to reminding him about ‘judging others lest ye be judged’. The right Reverend Haynes was not amused at having the Good Book used against him.

Micah stumbles and falls into the burning sands. He lays there for a moment, exhausted from his injuries and his sojourn. He closes his eyes and draws in a deep breath. In his mind’s eye he sees Jessie again. He sees her walking down the aisle towards him in her father’s church. It had been a year and a half of courting before Micah got up the nerve to ask Rev. Haynes for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Mrs. Haynes had long since given her approval of Micah’s love for Jessie but the old man held out for months telling Micah that his daughter deserved better than a cowpuncher with no future. You should have seen the old man’s face when I told him I had nearly three thousand dollars saved up to begin our life together. That seemed to turn the tide a bit in Micah’s favor.

After the wedding they built a home there in Abilene but it burnt down just months later during a bad fire caused by lightning which claimed several homes and businesses. He remembers the day they told Jessie’s parents that they were moving south to start a cattle ranch of their own. One of the proudest moments of Micah’s life is the day he carried his young wife into that new home.

Micah’s heart becomes heavy as he recalls burying Jessie’s mother on a cold gray November day, a casualty of some disease which swept through the town taking several lives in its wake. He recollects Rev. Haynes becoming withdrawn and bitter as a result because he’d prayed so hard for his wife to survive that when she died he felt betrayed by The Almighty Himself. He resigned from the church and lived out the rest of his years a recluse. He remembers the times he and Jessie would visit him only to have each visit end in a rancorous argument about how his faith was all in vain. It would always conclude with Jessie crying as they would leave the old man just sitting there in that oak rocking chair staring at the worn Bible in his lap. Her father’s leaving the ministry took its toll on Jessie as well. She would come to question her faith and Micah decided that wasn’t going to happen.

He remembers how they settled in Crossroads and the first thing Micah did was to get both he and Jessie involved in the church. He felt that faith played a big part in bringing them together and that it would play a big part in keeping them together as well. He recalls the day he became a deacon of the church and the pride he saw in Jessie’s face when he was appointed.

His thoughts now turn to some tougher times such as the day he returned from a cattle drive after almost losing the entire herd to a twister in Tucker’s Draw. He’d lost nearly 250 of 800 head to that catastrophe and after paying what he could to his drovers, he came home with twelve dollars in his pocket.  He remembers the drought which ruined his crops one year which made for a lean winter. He recalls the day he learned that Reverend Haynes had died and how he had to break the news to Jessie. Tears begin to well up in Micah’s eyes now.

He’ll never forget the sadness in her eyes at the news and how he wished he could take all the pain of that moment away from her and place it upon himself. That was a sorrow that he never wanted her to ever have to feel again.

His thoughts abruptly return to the here and now. He feels the burning sun on his face. His lips are blistering now and his eyes are hard to open.

“I’m sorry, Jessie,” he whispers in a hoarse voice. “I just need to rest here a bit”

He slips into unconsciousness. Thoughts and images whirl in his mind as if caught up in a cyclone inside his head. Suddenly the face of Jessie takes center stage in his mind. She is saying something but he can’t hear her. The expression on her face is one of concern and anxiousness. He tries to hear her words but they’re barely audible. Then slowly the words get louder and louder until he can make them out.

“Are you alright?” she says. She repeats the question again and the pained look on her face angers Micah. “Are you alright?” she says again. Suddenly Micah feels as if he’s burning up. The image of Jessie fades into blackness as her words seem louder still but her voice has changed. It’s deeper in tone now as the words ring in his ears once more.

“Are you alright?”

The words now very loud and Micah slowly opens his eyes. He sees a blackness in front of him.

“Mister, are you alright?” the words seem to come from out of the blackness. Micah blinks and rubs his eyes. The blackness now begins to take form and clarity. Standing over him is a man, hunched over and staring down at him.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER THREE* II=====II=====II

“Mister? Hey, you alright?” the man asks again.

Micah looks up at the man and utters just one word.

“Water” he says weakly.

“Water? Why sure. You just hold on there, pilgrim.” The man disappears for a moment and the bright sun causes Micah to instinctively shield his eyes with a hand. His injured head falls back onto the burning sand. The man returns, again blocking out the sun and places a canteen to Micah’s lips.

The water rushes over Micah’s tongue and causes him to cough.

“Whoa, easy there, mister”, the stranger cautions, drawing back the canteen. The man helps Micah sit upright until the coughing fit passes.  Micah rubs his eyes again. Now he sees the man clearly for the first time. The stranger looks to be a tall one, about six-foot-three or so and weighing about a hundred and eighty pounds. He appears deeply tanned and almost emaciated in his face. He sports a neatly trimmed thin moustache and goatee of dark black. He wears a black duster, lightened in hue by trail dust, a black vest and a black flat crown hat with a wide brim.

“Thank God” he thinks. “M’name’s Micah… Micah Foster.”

“Well Micah Foster, I hope you’ll forgive but you don’t appear to be in the best of shape.” The man says with a slight touch of sarcasm.

Micah tries to muster a laugh but it gets stuck in his dry throat.

“Well… to tell you the truth, mister, I’m not havin’ my best day” says Micah.

“I figured as much. How did you get way out here on foot?” the stranger asks.

“I got thrown. My horse got spooked and I got thrown. I hit my head on a rock or something. I got me a nasty cut and a Texas sized headache to go with it.”

“How long you been out here like this?”

“I don’t know” says Micah. “I figure I’d been wandering for at least six or seven hours or so.”

“Well you’re lucky that you ain’t dead from this heat. It’s got to be a hundred and ten out here. There isn’t any shade, any water and no one else around”

“’Cept you” Micah chimes in.

“What? Oh yes, except me of course” the stranger replies.

“Can I have some more water please?”

“Ah well, I’ve got me a long trip ahead of me and all I’ve got is this here canteen and the one on my horse to see me through.”

“Please…” pleads Micah.

The stranger pauses, staring at the exhausted man before him on the ground.

“Here.”

The man hands the canteen to Micah who quickly places it to his lips and takes a big swallow. He eyes the stranger as he takes another swallow and begins coughing again. The stranger retrieves the canteen from the coughing Micah and caps it. Micah stops coughing and stares at the stranger in confusion.

“Please… I’m so thirsty” begs Micah.

The stranger just stares at him as he places the canteen’s strap around his neck.

“I’m sorry, Micah Foster, but this is all the water I’ve got to make my trip. I feel for you, I really do…but I’ve got to get moving. There’s a few good souls waiting for me in that town a few miles ahead and I can’t be late. You understand?”

Micah can’t believe what he’s hearing. This man is about to leave him stranded and dying in this godforsaken desert. The stranger walks over to his ebony horse and places the canteen strap over the saddlehorn now. Micah struggles and gets to his knees. His vision is beginning to blur again as he reaches out to the stranger.

“Please mister… don’t leave me here like this to die… You’ve got plenty of water to make it to Diablo Rock. You know it’s got a watering hole there from the rains just a few days ago. You can fill up your canteen then. Just…leave me one of them… please. I’ll pay you… anything you want…just…please.” The words seem to spill from Micah’s mouth with tragic desperation.

“Look…I don’t want your money, mister” the man says, turning and heading back to his horse. He places his right hand upon his saddlehorn and slides his boot into the stirrup. He pauses momentarily then steps back to the ground and turns around and stares over at the injured Micah. He walks toward Micah, covering the twenty or so feet in seemingly quick pace. Micah rubs his eyes but his vision is still cloudy.

“How… much?” the man asks.

Micah, not certain he’d heard the man right, looks at him in confusion.

“What?” Micah sputters.

The stranger is now in front of Micah and squats down to look him in the eye.

“I said ‘how… much?’”

“I don’t know… what you mean” says Micah.

“You said you would be willing to pay me for my water. Soooo…what price are you willing to pay for it?”

“You mean…you really want me to give you money for your canteen?”

“Okay, let’s start with that. How much?” the stranger reiterates leaning in towards Micah, a grin of anticipation on his face.

Micah’s senses are reeling now. He is at the point of exhaustion and with potentially lifesaving measures within his reach, he finds himself kept at arms length from it. He licks his lips and sits back on the ground, squinting at the stranger.

“What’s your name?” asks Micah.

The question seems to catch the stranger off-guard a bit as he cocks his head in puzzlement.

“My… name?  That hardly matters, doesn’t it? I mean, you’re the one sitting here in the middle of the desert, your head busted open and suffering from exposure and you… you want to know my name?”

The corners of the stranger’s mouth turn up.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER FOUR* II=====II=====II

“I like to know… the names of the folks… I do business with” says Micah.

The stranger stands up and spins around. Placing his hand upon his chin as if in repose, the stranger turns back towards Micah.

“Fair enough. You can call me Mr. Blacke. Now then Mr. Foster… can we get on with our business?”

Micah’s eyes widen a bit but his vision has not improved.

“Yes Mr. Blacke. I’ll… pay you… twenty-five dollars… for your canteen.”

At that instant an expression of incredulous washes over Mr. Blacke’s face. He shakes his head and grins.

“Twenty-five dollars? Is that what you think your life’s worth, Mr. Foster, a mere twenty-five dollars? Come on now, surely a big cattleman like you can fancy a better deal than that. Let’s try it again, shall we?”

Micah strains to see Blacke’s face but his impaired vision stymies the effort.

“Okay, okay… how about… one hundred dollars?”

Mr. Blacke pooches his lips outward and nods slightly.

“Now we’re getting somewhere, Mr. Foster” he says with a happier tone in his voice. “One hundred dollars, eh?”

The stranger looks over his shoulder to the canteens hanging from his saddlehorn then back to the gaunt face of Micah Foster.

“Now a hundred dollars is a fair amount of money, yes sir, but you see…I think a man in your situation in life can do a little better. What do you say?”

Micah blinks rapidly and lowers his head in frustrated exhaustion. He reaches into his shirt and pulls out a paper envelope. It gets caught on a leather necklace he’s wearing but he gets it loose. He then holds it up for Mr. Blacke, his hand shaking from the exhaustion.

“Three hundred and forty-three dollars, that’s all I’ve got. My horse ran off with what other money I had so that’s gone. This is all I got on me…and I’m willin’ to give it all… to you.”

Blacke’s face brightens up at Micah’s gesture.

“Well, well, well… that certainly is a lot of money, Mr. Foster… all for a canteen of water?” Blacke taunts.

“Do we have a deal… or not?” says Micah with impatience in his voice, his eyes rolling from his exhaustion.

“Easy now… let’s not rush things, Mr. Foster” he says calmly as he stares at he envelope in Micah’s hand. “This is your wages from your last cattle drive?”

“Most of it least ways” says a dejected Micah.

“Hmmmm, very curious… this would support your family for awhile, maybe shore up a few outstanding bills, wouldn’t it?”

Micah simply stares at Blacke.

“You do have a family, right? Jessie? Randall and Casey?”

Micah feels a sharp jolt in his heart at Blacke’s words.

“How…?”

“Hmm yes, well, you were quite talkative and delirious when I happened upon you. You were talking in your sleep. The rest is simple deduction” says Blacke with a grin. “But let’s get back to the question at hand. You’ve offered me Three hundred and forty dollars for one of my canteens, is that right?”

A mentally exhausted Micah lashes out in irritation.

“Yes, yes, yes!” he snaps. “Do you want the money or not?”

Mr. Blacke places an index finger to his chin.

“That, my dear Mr. Foster, is an excellent question.”

Micah’s frustration is rapidly increasing as he feels his blood rush to his temples. His head feels as though it might explode.

“What in God’s name are you babbling about?!” barks Micah.

Mr. Blacke frowns as if offended by Micah’s words and attitude.

“You simply asked me whether I wanted your money or not. Well… thinking it over…maybe I don’t need or even want your money? What else do you have to offer?”

The man’s words push Micah to the brink of madness. He shakes his head in disbelief and drops the envelope of money into the sand.

“What…else?” Micah says in abject despair, “What else?! I’m stuck out here in this hellish desert, no horse, no water and not much chance to survive…what else could I possibly have that you’d want?!”

There is a long silent pause as Mr. Blacke turns his back to Micah and takes a few steps toward his horse. He turns on his heel and points a finger into the air.

 

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER FIVE* II=====II=====II

“What about… what about your cattle?” says Blacke.

“Wha…?”

“What about your cattle? What if you gave me… say… half of your herd for the fall drive? What do you say to that?”

“Half?! Half my herd?! You’re plumb weak north of your ears, mister” says Micah snatching up the envelope and struggling to his feet. “I need that herd money for the winter.”

“So your life ain’t worth half your herd?” asks Blacke with a teasing in his manner.

“That’s right!” snaps Micah.

“You sure Jessie’d feel that way?”

The words seem to hit Micah right square in the face.

“I mean, I would think she’d give whatever it took to see that you returned to her and the kids alive… don’t you?” says Blacke.

The words grind into Micah’s ears. He grits his teeth and snorts in anger.

“You leave Jessie and the kids out of this, Blacke” he says with a stern warning. “This is between you and me. I need your canteen. The question is…what do you want for it?”

Blacke paces back and forth for a moment.

“Yes, that is the matter at hand, isn’t it? You’ve offered me money but I don’t really need the money. I proposed half of your fall herd…your final decision on that?”

Micah shakes his head with anger.

“If that’s what it’ll take… then… yes, you can have half the herd! Satisfied now?!”

“I’m not sure. We are still negotiating, are we not?”

“What else could you possibly want, Blacke?”

“I don’t know… money, cattle… what about… your ranch?”

“You’d take my ranch?”

“Not ‘take’ really… I’d have you sign over the deed and then you and your family could stay there and pay me a monthly rent. You could still herd cattle and take half of the payday for the herd. How does that sound?”

Micah eyes the man in disbelief.

“I-I can’t believe this? What kind of a man are you? I’m injured and exhausted. I’m wounded and thirsty. You couldn’t see your way clear to do the Christian thing and help, Mr. Blacke?”

Blacke’s demeanor changes as his brow furrows and he stares at Micah with anger in his eyes.

“By ‘Christian’ I suppose you mean charity and that I should just give my canteen with my water to you just because you think you need it more than I?”

“That ain’t it! I already told you I’d pay ya for your canteen! I ain’t looking out for no charity!” barks Micah as he drops to his knees again in the sand.

Blacke stiffens up as if reassessing the situation.

“Okay then, let’s try something else. No money. No cattle. No ranch. I’ll give you my canteen to you right here and now…”

Micah is wavering as he remains on his knees in the blistering sun. He squints at Blacke and raises his hands in frustration.

Blacke steps in closer to Micah and gets down on one knee in front of him now.

“All you’ve got to do is say you’ll give me…” Blacke leans in towards Micah with a grin,”…your soul.”

Micah blinks hard with incredulity. He can’t believe what he’s just heard.

“Wh-what?”

“Come now, Mr Foster,” says Blacke standing back up “surely you understand the price I’ve just asked. It’s quite simple really. I will give you my full canteen which will undoubtedly be enough to get you back to town in exchange for one thing: your soul.”

“My soul? How do I pay you my soul?”

“That’s the beauty in this deal, Mr. Foster. You don’t have to do anything. All you have to do is sign your name saying that you willingly give me your soul and you’ll have your water and be on your way. You’ll never see me again the rest of your living days.”

“Are you mad?” asks Micah. “Who do you think you are, the Devil himself?”

Mr. Blacke smiles a condescending grin.

“Name calling is not necessary, Mr. Foster. I’m not demanding anything from you. This is completely up to you.”

“And if I say no, then what? You leave me out here in this desert to die?”

“I do have a long journey ahead of me, Mr. Foster. I’ve already wasted more time with you than I should have. You have the terms of my deal. I must ask you to make your decision now as the deal does have expiration and it’s coming up fast.”

Micah looks down into his empty hands. He sits back onto his feet. His mind reels with thoughts of Jessie, the boys and what their life would be without him there. He then tries to fathom what it would be like if he should die and never see them again.

‘Is it such a big price to pay?’ he thinks, ’Afterall this guy is crazy. If all I’ve got to do is tell him I’ll give him my soul then he’ll leave and I’ll get back to Jessie and the boys. But why ask for my soul to begin with?’

“Time’s a-wasting. I need my answer, Mr. Foster”

His words snap Micah back to reality.

“Last chance” says Blacke.

Micah shakes his head. Mr. Blacke looks down upon him with sadness in his eyes.

“Good luck, Mr. Foster. You’re going to need it.”

Blacke turns and walks towards his horse.

“Alright” says Micah in a hushed tone.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER SIX* II=====II=====II

Blacke stops dead in his tracks. He turns slowly and walks back to Micah.

“Excuse me, Mr. Foster?”

“I said ‘alright’ you filthy –“

“Come now, there’s no call for such venom, Mr. Foster” says Blacke with a wry grin. “I believe we have a deal”

Blacke walks back towards his horse again.

“The canteen! Please… the canteen” pleads Micah.

Blacke pauses, turns and says” In good time, Mr. Foster”

Blacke gets into one of his saddlebags and pulls out something. He walks back to Micah with what appears to be a piece of paper, an inkwell and quill.

“What is all this for?” asks Micah.

“Well every deal must be signed into agreement to make it legal and binding, don’t you agree? So I’ll just need you to sign your name on the bottom here and our deal will be done.”

“You want me … to really sign my soul over to you?”

“Well yes, Mr. Foster…that is what you agreed to, is it not?”

“My soul… for a canteen of water?”

“Yes sir, those are the terms just as we discussed”

Mr. Blacke offers the quill to Micah who stares at it even as his trembling hand retrieves it.

‘Just be done with it’ he thinks to himself. ‘He’s crazy and he’ll be gone and I can be on my way.’

“Mr. Foster?”

Micah looks at the paper. The words written in ink are smallish and hard for Micah to focus on.

“Right here” says Blacke as he points a boney finger to the line for Micah’s signature.

“I know, I know!” barks Foster.

Micah dips the quill into the inkwell held by Blacke. He then slowly places quill to paper signing his first name.

“Ah, very good, Micah…now the last name, please hurry.”

Micah looks up into Blacke’s darkened grey eyes. They were filled with anticipation like looking upon a bountiful feast before the eating. Suddenly everything starts to spin and Micah falls backwards on the sand.

Before passing out he hears “Micah!” then all went dark.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER SEVEN* II=====II=====II

There she is, hanging wash on the clothesline. The sun shines brightly upon the scene. Randall and Casey chase each other across the yard in spirited play. He walks up to Jessie from behind and places his arms gently around her waist. She is startled by the move and playfully swats at Micah.

“Where have you been?” she asks.

“I had a bit of trouble on the trial back” he replies.

“Are you alright?” she asks cupping his face with her gentle caring hands. Micah takes both her hands in his and smiles at her.

“I am now” he assures her.

“Well I’m glad you’re back. Come inside there’s someone here you’ll want to see.” She says leading him to the house. They walk into the kitchen and Micah tries to adjust his eyes to the dim lighting. He slowly makes out a man standing at the window over the sink, looking out to the backyard. There’s an uneasiness in Micah as he walks towards the man.

“Hello, Micah” the man says without moving.

The words send a chill thru Micah causing his chest to tighten and his eyes widen. The man slowly turns his head until Micah could see his face. It was Mr. Blacke.

“Wha-what do you want?” says Micah backing away slowly.

“What’s wrong Micah?” asks Jessie.

“Yes, Micah…what’s wrong? You remember me? More importantly, you recall our agreement, don’t you?” says Blacke thru grinning teeth.

“What agreement, Micah? What’s this about?” Jessie asks with panic in her voice.

Micah reaches his right hand down to his holster. Upon arrival he finds it empty. Mr. Blacke now takes a step toward Micah reaching into his vest pocket as he does so. He pulls out a folded piece of paper.

“You remember don’t you? The day I found you unconscious and near death out on the El Paso trail, remember?”

Micah’s heart begins racing.

“You offer for my canteen of water, sound familiar yet?”

Micah’s temples throbbed as his pulse thundered thru his veins.

“No? Well this is your signature, isn’t it?” says Blacke holding the paper out at arms length.

Sweat trickles down Micah’s forehead and stings the corner of his eyes.

“Well I assure you it’s all legal and well… I’m here to collect on it.”

“What is he talking about, Micah?” Jessie pleads.

The words cannot come as Micah’s throat tightens in fear.

“Like I said, Micah… I’m here to collect” says Blacke as he draws a pistol from his holster as quick as lightning.

“No!” screams Jessie as she rushes to Micah.

BLAM!

Micah sees the smoke wisping from the barrel of Blacke’s gun. His eyes lower to Jessie who slumps in his arms. He removes a hand from her back and gasps in horror as it’s covered in blood.

“No!” he bellows. Jessie begins to slip from his grasp. Jessie’s wooden cross necklace is clutched in her hand.

“Such a waste” says Blacke as he readies his aim once more.

“God help me” he whispers, closing his eyes and waiting for his bullet. There is silence. Micah slowly opens his eyes to darkness. Then in the distance there is a light which continues to be bigger and brighter as a voice bellows…

“Hey!”

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER EIGHT* II=====II=====II

Micah tries to shield his eyes from the blinding sun. He wasn’t sure of what he was hearing. Then it rang out again.

“Hey mister!”

Micah was sure he heard it this time and tried to roll over to see where the voice was coming from.

“I know him! That’s Micah Foster!” another voice says.

He feels hands try to raise him into a sitting position. He sees a glint of silver metal. He focuses his eyes on the shiny metal. It’s a five point star. He begins to fidget as if frightened by the sight.

“Easy Micah” the voice reassures. ”It’s me… Rory Bensen. I’m here with Mike Dunny.”

Micah stops and raises his eyes up. He now sees Marshal Rory Bensen clearly. A weak smile creases his lips.

“Mike, let’s get him over to the shade there” says Bensen.

The two men position Micah against a small rock outcropping which provided a small bit of shadow this time of day.

“Here Micah, drink this slowly” says Bensen placing his canteen to Micah’s lips. It was a welcomed taste as it cascaded over his parched lips and tongue.

Minutes pass and finally Micah is fully back to his senses.

“Where is he?” asks Micah.

“Where’s who, Micah? Someone else out here with you?” asks Dunny.

“That blackhearted devil Mr. Blacke, that’s who!”

“Easy Micah. When we come upon you, you were passed out in the sand all alone. We never saw anyone else coming or going” says Benson.

“He wanted my soul for his canteen. My soul, Rory!”

“Your soul? For a canteen? You’re not making sense, Micah. It’s the heat. You’re exhausted and it looks like you’ve got a nasty knot on your noggin as well.”

“No! He was here I tell you! He was…” Micah stops in mid-sentence. His eyes spot the canteen lying in the sand. He points to it.

“That’s it right there!”, he yells. Dunny grabs the canteen and unscrews the cap. He then tips the canteen and out spills…sand.

“Good thing you didn’t make the deal cuz you’d been on the short end of the deal”, says Bensen with a slight chuckle.

“There was a piece of paper…a paper he wanted me to sign to make the deal legal-like” says Micah frantically scouring the ground with his eyes.

Mike Dunny walks over to where Micah is standing. He squats down and brushing some sand aside, picks up a weathered piece of parchment at Micah’s feet.

“That’s-that’s it, Rory!” says Micah excitedly.

Rory motions to Dunny with a nod of his head and Dunny brings it over and hands it to him. The marshal opens it up and stares at it for a moment before looking at the anticipating Micah Foster.

“This?”

“Yeah, that’s the deal he made me sign for my soul” says Micah staring wide-eyed at the lawman.

“Well your name’s on it alright, well your first name at least but there’s nothing else written on it. See for yourself” says Rory handing the parchment to Micah.

Micah stares in bewilderment at the vacant paper. He crushes it in his fist.

“You must’ve frightened him off! He was here I tell you!”

Bensen glances over at Mike Dunny with a look of resignation.

“Let’s get you home, Micah” says the lawman as they aid Micah Foster up into the saddle of Benson’s horse. Bensen then mounts the horse himself and cinches up on the reins.

As the trio begin the journey back towards town Micah can be heard trying to convince the men of what and who he saw as he lay in the burning sands of the San Toranado Desert.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER NINE* II=====II=====II

Micah stands at his front door and takes in a deep breath. The fall air has a slight chill to it in the early morn. He looks over at his wife and kisses her on the cheek.

“Did you have enough breakfast?” she asks sweetly.

“If I ate any more I’d bust at the seams” he retorts, grabbing his hat from the back of his chair at the table.

“I wish you wouldn’t go on this drive, Micah, especially after what happened to you a few months ago. I don’t know what the boys and I would do without you.”

Micah smiles and hugs her tightly.

“You’ll never have to find out” he whispers in her ear then gently kisses it.

He steps thru the door to see his two sons chasing a butterfly across the front yard. He laughs to himself and looks to the sky.

“Looks like we’ve got good weather to start out with” says a voice to his right. It’s Dan York, his ranch foreman.

“Sure looks that way” replies Micah. “Ren and the fellas ready to go?”

“Yup. They’ll meet us on the edge of town. The marshal didn’t want us traipsin’ thru the town what with all of them women suffrage ladies being out and about. It wouldn’t seem right so we agreed to run around the town. That okay?”

“That’s fine, Dan, thanks.”

“Well I’m gonna head down to the telegraph office and wire ahead that we’re on our way. Catch up with ya at the trail north, okay?”

“Yeah, I’ve got to stop in for supplies then I’ll be along directly” says Micah slapping Dan on the back.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER TEN* II=====II=====II

Micah ties the reins to his horse up to the hitching rail out front of McMurphy’s General Store.

“You missed it, Micah” says a familiar voice from behind. Micah turns around and is greeted by a smiling Marshal Benson.

“Missed what?” says Micah shaking hands with the lawman.

“You ever heard of Jack Duggan or Billy Two-Fingers?”

“Yeah, coupla horse thieves and rustlers from up in Kansas. Heard they killed a bunch of poor settlers in the panhandle too and never got caught. They in town?” asks Micah with concern in his eyes.

“Not anymore. They’re up there now” says the marshal nodding towards the graveyard at the end of town.

“Dead?” asks Micah.

Benson nods.

“Witnesses all say they drew on Pete Tighe and Will Pacston yesterday morning after an all-nighter in the Last Chance. Seems Pete called Jack out for cheating cards. They both drew and Jack came out on the short end. Billy then tried to back-shoot Pete but Pacston covered him putting three right thru his heart ‘fore he hit the floor as I heard tell. Doc confirmed the three shots when I talked to him yesterday afternoon. Them boys been wanted all thru Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. They always seemed to stay just two steps ahead of the law everywhere they hung their hat. Almost like they led a charmed life.”

“Yeah ‘charmed’, heh” chuckles Micah.

“Yeah well looks like their luck ran out yesterday and they can face their fate in the afterlife. You heading out for the fall drive to Cheyenne? Or is it Dodge?”

“Dodge this time. I’m gettin’ too old to make that trip up to Cheyenne” says Micah with a grin.

“Well have a safe trip, amigo” says Benson extending his hand again. Micah shakes it and walks into the store.

The store was quiet. There are three men talking at the counter while a little boy was trying desperately trying to steal a candy stick from a glass jar on the counter. Micah looks around but doesn’t see Jim McMurphy, the store owner. He grabs some beef jerky and some coffee grounds and heads to the counter. He gets in line behind the three men and sees the boy securing the sucker in his shirt.

“Young man!” says the tallest of the three men. The boy freezes and looks up at the man. Ever so slowly a smile creeps over the man’s face. “That’s a good start” he says with a wink. The boy grins and runs out of the store with his stolen plunder.

The man and his companions now turn to leave and the tall man’s eyes meet Micah’s.

The coffee grinds and beef jerky hit the wooden floor with a thud.

Micah’s eyes widen in shock.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER ELEVEN* II=====II=====II

“Why Micah Foster, so good to see you in better health” says the man known to Micah as Mr. Blacke.

“Blacke…!” says Micah in a hushed tone as he backs up a step or two, his right hand instinctively going to his pistol in his holster. “I oughta lay you down with lead right here…!”

“No need for gunplay, Micah, you’re not my…concern” says Blacke, ”For now.”

Blacke takes a candy stick and slides it into his mouth before removing it to speak again.

“Still…it’s a shame we couldn’t come to terms on that deal we’d discussed. You… weeeell, you just couldn’t finish what you started, I was very disappointed to say the least.” Blacke shrugs his shoulders,” Ah well, win some, lose some.”

Micah swallows hard, his hand at the ready. Blacke grins.

“I hear you’ve got a big cattle drive ahead of you. A thousand head this time? Hmph, who knows? We may yet do business after all, one never knows what lies ahead, do they?” says Blacke with a smile dripping of sarcasm. “Oh, where are my manners. I’d like you to meet my latest business associates; one Jack Du-“

“I know who they are” interrupts Micah, his index finger sliding onto his six-gun’s trigger.

“Oh you do? Well, I guess I’m not too surprised. I’m told they are quite well known in this part of the West. I’d love to chat with you and hear what Jessie and the boys are up to…”

Micah cocks the gun’s hammer with his thumb and tightens his grip on the colt’s handle.

“but I’m afraid we’re late and must be going.” Blacke continues. “I hear rumor that there’s some killer business opportunities blooming up in Tombstone territory.” says Blacke slyly as he passes by Micah.

 “Well, vaya con Dios, as they say, Mr. Foster,” says Mr. Blacke with that telling grin,” for as far as that might get you.”

He lifts his hat and tips it to Micah. High on his forehead, right at the hairline, are a pair of short horns. Micah gasps at the sight. Mr. Blacke replaces the hat back down upon his head with a smile. He taps it on the crown and gives a knowing wink. And with that Micah watches as Mr. Blacke walks out of the store, the two men following him silently and sheepishly. Then they were gone. Micah races to the door, his gaze darting up and down the street. They are nowhere in sight. He tries to catch his breath when a deep voice beckons from behind him.

“Micah!”

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER TWELVE* II=====II=====II

“Micah! Something I can help you with?” says Jim McMurphy, the store’s proprietor.

“Did you… did you see them men?”

“See who? What men?” says McMurphy looking past Micah’s right shoulder towards the door.”There’s no one in here but you and me” replies the owner in slight confusion.

Micah Foster blinks his eyes as if to somehow erase what he’s just witnessed.

“Micah?”

The query shocks Micah back to the moment and he shakes his head. He reaches down and picks up the grinds and jerky then walks up to the counter.

“Will that be it, Micah?” he asks.

“Give me two of them canteens back there” he says pointing to the wall behind the owner.

The owner retrieves the canteens and lays them on the counter.

“Yeah” says Micah turning to glance at the door again. “Yeah, that’s it”

“Six dollars please”

Micah reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls the coins out. He places them down on the counter and grabs up his items, his eyes never leaving the door.

“Uh, thanks, Micah. Take care now” says McMurphy watching Micah cautiously exit the store and he scratches his head in confusion.

Out on the boardwalk Micah once again shifts his gaze up and down the avenue but sees no hint of the three men. He reaches into the collar of his shirt and pulls out the worn leather necklace. Attached to the leather is a silver cross, given to him by his wife Jessie years ago. He grips it tightly with his fingers and smiles. He tucks it back inside his shirt. He unties the reins from the hitching post and swings himself up into his saddle.

As he starts north up the street, he can hear the distant sound of the town’s church bells…and he smiles.

II=====II=====II * EPILOGUE* II=====II=====II

So, what would you give to stay alive if staring into the uncaring face of death? 

Would you give your very soul? That's what Micah was faced with and decided it was not the way he wanted it to be. His 'fainting' spell was but a clever ruse with which to avoid the eternal question posed by Mr Blacke.

We can only hope to be as brave when faced with a similar proposition and have the courage to make the right choice.

Such is life...and death... out here in the West…at Crossroads.

II=====II=====II * THE END* II=====II=====II


Submitted: May 11, 2021

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