DUST -- A short story

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
An eight year old boy, living in Kansas during the Great Depression, has visions in the middle of a dust storm.(Click the link at the bottom of my profile tab to read the properly formatted version)

Submitted: December 29, 2013

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Submitted: December 29, 2013

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DUST

 

Death came to Ford County, Kansas, late in the summer of 1936. It rose just above the horizon, and took the form of a half-mile-high storm cloud of auburn and rust. As it billowed out across the state, it swallowed up the farmlands and the homesteads and the lives of those too willful to fear it. It transformed bustling mom-and-pop main streets into derelict ghost towns. It transformed churches and thriving businesses into boarded up husks of brick and mortar. It transformed livestock—horses, cows, pigs, and chickens—into silent bags of dirt bloated skin. And it eventually transformed the citizens of Ford County, Kansas, into a withering population of dust-dappled phantoms; phantoms who now aimlessly wandered through what was once an American state of plenty.

The Great Depression raged through the rest of the country. There were soup kitchens with snaking bread lines, overnight tent encampments in public parks, and hoards of train-riding hobos. Large cities and small towns from coast to coast were laid to waste.

 

The Reynolds farmhouse came to resemble a wedge of driftwood stranded on a lonely beach. Once a prosperous homestead amidst an ocean of lilting wheat, it was now a fortress, an Alamo for the Reynolds family’s faded ambitions. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Reynolds had lived in Ford County, Kansas, for thirty-five and thirty-three years, respectively. Marie had married Tom in a small wedding, and then moved onto his father’s farm. They were a bright and round-faced couple at the beginning of 1928, but by the late 1930s, the dust and the wind and the drought had worn them down. From their front porch, they watched the rusting farm equipment and the static electricity that danced when the dust blew. They watched the bare trees in their front yard and the murders of crows that threaded deadwood and barbed wire into their nests, because there was nothing else left to build with.

Thomas Reynolds Junior was eight years old when he first coughed up the dust. Now he was eight years and one month, with pale skin, white from the sickness, and long blond hair, brown from the windblown loam. A once buoyant little boy who was prone to hunting imaginary wildlife and playing never-ending games of “Cowboys and Indians,” was put to bed, troubled over by his parents, sheltered within the folds of his long-departed grandmother’s quilt.

Thomas’s bedroom in the one-story farmhouse was sparse. Just a few handmade playthings and his favorite toy pistol kept him company. The playthings were overlooked, but the toy pistol was polished to a high-shined silver and tucked away in a fine leather holster. Thomas’s hand-me-down clothes—plain shirts and dark-hued pants—rested in an old dresser drawer, while his too-small black suit dangled in the hall closet like a condemned man from a noose. A mud-stained, grainy view of the dusty fields and farmlands and highways, bordered by a single file line of ghostlike telephone poles, stretched from a solitary window.

“The dust pneumonia” had taken the lives of most of Thomas’s friends, as well as their family members. The Kent brothers, Pete Dailey, Mitch Colleton, and Becky Arnold were put to rest. There were rumors of empty farmhouses and abandoned homesteads cropping up all across the state.

“One third of Ford County gone,” Thomas heard his father mumble one night. And when Thomas later coughed up the first lungfuls of that wretched dust, he found himself carried off to his bedroom, wrapped in the folds of his quilt.

Thomas’s mother entered his bedroom on the sixteenth day of the dust storm. She knew it was the sixteenth day, because she had marked an X on the kitchen calendar for every day the sun hadn't shined. The windows in the farmhouse were shut and locked and barricaded with strips of fabric and dish towels. The air was stifling, ungodly, thick with the ever-present dust.

Wearing her usual faded house dress, Thomas’s mother sat beside him on his bed. Thomas grimaced as she spoon-fed him his daily dose of medicine—a drop of lard with a splash of kerosene.

“Now I know this doesn't taste real good,” she said, “but it's better than the skunk grease and that horrible coal oil.” She put her hand to his cheek, and then to his forehead, taking his temperature. Thomas acknowledged her with weak smile.

The visions appeared on the seventeenth day of the dust storm. During breakfast, Thomas ran into the kitchen and aimed his toy pistol toward the front door. He swore to his father that he’d seen a giant black spider hiding outside, right behind the farmhouse. He had shot at it, tried to kill it, but it escaped, vanishing into the storm.

“It was huge, Pa! It was bigger'n a dog.” Thomas said. “And it looked right at me, too, I swear! It had these big silver eyes, Pa, silver!”

Thomas’s father gently wiped a veil of dust off the kitchen table. His mother swept the dust out onto the front porch.

“Heck, it couldn’t be worse than the wild Indians, or the coyotes, or the lions and tigers out there,” Thomas said as he pulled the trigger of his pistol. “I bet I can go kill it.”

After breakfast, while tucked in bed, Thomas overheard his father mumble something to his mother. “He’s just getting worse.” A cabinet door creaked open and the family’s dog-eared Bible dropped to the kitchen table. Thomas fell asleep to hushed readings of psalm and verse.

 

On the nineteenth morning of the dust storm, Thomas pushed away his grandmother’s quilt, and reached to the bedpost for his toy pistol. He quick-drew the gun from its leather holster, and looked outside. The Great Depression stared back at him. But there was something else. There was something out on the highway. Something was moving along the line of splintering telephone poles. It was walking—no, it was strolling—up the highway. A sliver of black, moving unhurriedly through a fog of hazy white. Thomas sat up to get a better look. The sliver got larger, until it transformed into the shape of a man, a very tall man who was wearing an old, threadbare, black suit. And, wait, did the man also have on . . . a top hat? And then Thomas noticed that the wind and the dust didn’t touch the man. Nineteen days of unrelenting sound and fury, and this tall, odd looking stranger was just ambling along like it was a balmy summer afternoon.

When a heavy cloud of dust whirled up behind the stranger, Thomas realized something was wrong. He was seeing something. Something not quite right. The big black spider he’d seen from his window the other day was also on the highway. But, oddly enough, it was the stranger’s companion, and it hopped, skipped, and jumped along right beside him.

 

Breakfast was one boiled egg each and a tray of warm cornbread. As Thomas was feeling better, he joined his mother and father at the kitchen table. The minutes slowly ticked by before he looked up from his unfinished plate and said, “I saw a man out on the highway.”

His mother and father patiently kept eating.

Thomas leaned forward. “He . . . he was real tall. And dressed up in all black. He had this big top hat on, too. Y’know, like in that picture you showed me of President Lincoln?”

His mother and father chewed their food.

“And he also had that dang spider with him. I swear, it was bigger’n a dog.”

His parents stopped eating.

“Probably just another vagrant,” his father stated. His mother stood up and began to clear the breakfast dishes.

“But the spider—” Thomas started.

“Boy, there weren't no spider,” his father said in a harsh tone. “Was probably just a big dog or . . . or somethin',” he added in a softer voice.

“Yeah, Pa,” Thomas finally said. “Just a dog.”

Night advanced on the farm and Thomas’s father returned home. He was, as he was every day after looking for work, covered head to toe in soil and empty of pocket. Thomas’s mother, for the third time that day, swept the cloudy remnants of their wheat fields onto the front porch. Thomas’s father took a healthy sip of the whiskey bottle he kept in his back pocket.

“So didja hear?” he asked.

His wife stopped her sweeping.

“The Claremonts’re gone,” he said.

Thomas’s mother knew what was coming next, but still asked.

“Went west?”

Thomas’s father drank some more, wincing at the aftertaste. “Just up and gone.”

Eavesdropping from inside the house, Thomas scratched at the crotch of his long johns, and then ran back to bed.

 

The twentieth-first day of the dust storm brought the tornado—a gruesome, rotating cord of dust and dirt that uneasily moored heaven and earth. The funnel twisted over the inhospitable fields and the farmlands, and then soon close to the Reynolds farmhouse, where Thomas watched from his bedroom perch. His face married to the window, he wondered if his parents were going to rush inside and drag him off to the fruit cellar.

And then he saw the tall, odd stranger again. But this time the man wasn’t strolling along leisurely up the highway, with the big black spider in tow. This time the man was riding on the back of an enormous black-winged bird, within the voracious winds of the oncoming twister. A second later, and the stranger spun away from the twister's vortex, flying off toward another field, another homestead. The twister followed right behind him.

“Ma, Pa!” Thomas screamed. He peered out the window until his mother and father rushed into the room, his mother with more of her medicine in hand.

“I saw him! I saw the Abe Lincoln man!” He held his toy pistol over his heart. “He was out there, way up in the sky, and he was ridin’ on the back of this big black bird! And they was inside the twister! They went flyin’ off! It looked like they was goin’ over to Mr. Blanks’ place!”

His father turned away, his face hard, and headed out of the bedroom. His mother smiled a thin smile, fed Thomas his remedy of fat and fuel, and then she tucked him in.

That night, the remaining souls of Ford County, Kansas, gathered in the family’s parlor; neighbors and friends and acquaintances huddled shoulder to shoulder; washed-out blue jeans and sun-bleached dresses and torn shirts and heat-warped, leather boots. They listened intently as Thomas’s father spoke to them. He spoke of the promise of jobs in California and in the eastern factories, and he also spoke of the businessman who had written in the Del Hart Texan newspaper, calling on all the men folk of Texas to stick together and to refuse to leave their land.

“But I’m just not so sure what we should do anymore,” he finished.

Thomas’s mother cooked in the kitchen with the other women and listened. Hidden in the hallway closet, Thomas listened, too.

An old man stood up, resting his left hand in his overalls, holding a clay pipe with his right. He cleared his throat, and said, “Well, like you and yours, Tom, this here’s my family’s land, and it’s been so for generations. Clearin' out, just runnin' off, hell, that ain’t no guarantee of nothin'. Why, just take a look at what happened to the poor Claremonts.”

People traded confused looks. The poor Claremonts? The Claremonts had gone west.

The man continued, “I heard from the sheriff, but I didn’t wanna bring it up. Didn’t wanna make folks anymore miserable’n they already are.” He chewed on his tobacco-less pipe. “Jake Claremont’s truck flipped over just outside Malvern. Killed him and his whole family.”

The women gasped in the kitchen. The men did their best not to be unnerved. Nestled away in the dark, Thomas hugged his knees to his chest.

The man continued, “And Carl Blanks, he says he’s leavin’ outta here tomorrow night. And you know what that means, that means the garage is gonna go with him.”

Thomas burst into the living room, his grandmother’s quilt draped around his shoulders like a magician’s cape. “Mr. Blanks ain’t gonna make it. Mr. Blanks is gonna die.”

“Thomas!” His mother screamed from the kitchen.

His father angrily commanded, “Boy, get yerself back in bed.”

“It’s the man! It’s the Abe Lincoln man!” Thomas shouted. “I saw him flyin' over to Mr. Blanks’ place right along with the twister!”

The visitors silently lowered their heads.

Thomas’s mother stepped out of the kitchen and took him by the hand.

In his bedroom, she tucked him in.

“Ma, I swear! I saw him! He was—”

“Hush, you just rest now,” she said, smoothing back his hair.

“But, Ma, I told you, he was ridin’ on this big black bird. I seen him. He was flyin’ over to Mr. Blanks’ place.”

His mother bent down and kissed him on the forehead. As she left the room, she pulled the door shut behind her.

Thomas peered out his bedroom window. He reached for his pistol and its leather holster and held them over his heart. He’d wait for the Abe Lincoln man to show up again. Hell, he’d wait for as long as it took, and this time he would be ready. He quick-drew is pistol three times, just like he'd seen the cowboys do in the picture shows, and lay back in bed.

 

The twenty-second day was considered a blessing; more sun and more heat, but the dust storm had finally passed. Thomas’s mother sat beside him and fed him from a bowl of warm oatmeal. When the explosions echoed out from the Krause homestead, Thomas jumped into her arms.

“It’s nothin’,” his mother assured him, “just old man Krause an’ his nitroglycerine.”

Another loud explosion ripped across the fields.

“I hear tell that the folks down at town hall, they paid him three hundred dollars to shake things up a bit.”

“They did?” Thomas asked.

“Yep. Mr. Krause told everybody that he could agitate the sky. He says he can make it rain.”

“Can he, Ma?”

“Only if the good Lord lets him, I suppose.”

“Then why not pay the good Lord the three hundred?”

Thomas’s mother started to laugh, but covered her smile. Her husband, the old man in the overalls, and two other men from the night of the tornado stood in the doorway.

Thomas’s father said sternly, “Go on in the kitchen, Marie.”

Thomas’s mother bobbed her head at the men. They nodded to her politely. She collected the bowl of oatmeal and hurried out. Thomas’s father stepped into the bedroom. Particles of dust dropped from his hair and off of his shirt as he leaned over.

“Boy. Yesterday. What exactly did you see?” The other men closed in. Thomas took hold of his pistol and inched back up to the headboard. His father snatched him by the arm. “Answer me.”

“Y-y-you mean, the man, Pa?” Thomas stuttered.

“Yes. The man. What did you see?”

Thomas held the pistol over his heart. “I . . . I told you. He looked just like President Lincoln. I saw him on the highway and . . . and then I saw him flyin’ on a bird, way up in the sky.”

The old man in the overalls, pipe clenched in his teeth, grunted. “Your boy’s touched.”

One of the other men shook his head. “It’s the sickness.”

The last man added, “My Aunt Ninnie had the sight. She got it cuz of the fever.”

Thomas’s father palmed his forehead. “His fever broke last night.”

The overalls man said, “He’s got the sight.”

The four men stepped into the hallway. Low voices, concerned rumblings. Thomas seized his leather holster and buckled it on, shoved in the pistol, and rolled out of bed.

Later in the afternoon, a few of the men of Ford County gathered in front of the farmhouse, and listened as Father Arness delivered an impromptu sermon. “We must remain here in Ford County, in this arid hell on earth, and trust in the Lord our God.”

The Father, a robust, red-faced man, held a Bible under his left arm, and pointed to the heavens with his right. Thomas listened through the screen door, from inside the house.

Father Arness loudly proclaimed, “What happened to Carl Blanks was what the Lord desired. A piece of errant metal struck Carl and killed him in his garage. It was the Lord’s holy judgment.”

Thomas’s father and the other men traded uneasy looks.

Father Arness kept preaching. “It was no evil spirit, it was no tall man in black who took his life.”

Inside, Thomas lowered his hand to the fake ivory butt of his pistol.

“But if you men continue to believe in superstitions and lies, and if you continue to believe in the ramblings of a sick and delusional eight-year-old boy, and if you leave Ford County behind and abandon your land and your birthrights, then there is nothing I or the Almighty can do for you!”

With that fiery pronouncement, Father Arness lumbered over to his 1927 Model T Ford, and climbed inside. With a scathing look to the men in the rearview mirror, he stomped on the accelerator and headed out for the dusty highway.

Thomas stepped onto the porch. He watched as the men congregated around his father. After a short discussion with the men, his father sipped from his flask of whiskey, and walked into the house.

Thomas’s mother set a cup of coffee on the kitchen table. His father took a taste, and said, “They’re stayin’ put.”

His mother sat down.

Thomas looked inside from the porch. He watched as his father lovingly took his mother’s hand, and said, “We ain’t.”

Thomas heard a distant car horn. He turned away from his parents and watched as Father Arness parked at another homestead farther up the road. A gust of wind blew past, and in the blink of an eye, Father Arness and the Model T disappeared. To Thomas’s astonishment, the Abe Lincoln man and the giant spider materialized in their place. The winds blew once more, and the vision faded. Father Arness got out of his Model T, Bible in hand.

From the house, Thomas father called his name.

Thomas peeked through the screen door. “Yeah, Pa?”

“C’mon. We got work to do.”

 

By dusk of the next evening, Thomas’s father had loaded up the last of their home and battened everything down with bits of twine and ragged cord. Earlier that morning, Thomas’s mother had newspaper-wrapped the dishes and cutlery, boxed up the coffee and the cooking pots, and weighed down the washtubs and the linen.

In the truck, huddled between his parents and holding rigidly to his pistol, Thomas peeked over his mother’s breast at the truck’s side-view mirror. As the truck bounced down the drive toward the highway, he saw the house shrinking, disintegrating in a trailing cloud of exhaust and prairie smoke.

“Pa?”

Thomas’s father seemed easy at the wheel.

“Yeah, boy?”

“Do they got churches in California?”

“They got churches everywhere.” his father stated as he clamped on a sweat-greased fedora.

“Ma?”

Unlike his father, her face was drawn, ashen.

“Yes?”

“Where we gonna sleep tonight?”

“In here, I suppose.”

“In the truck?”

Thomas’s father snorted. “I can make the campgrounds by mornin’. We ain’t sleepin’ out on no road.”

The telephone poles held fast to the boundaries of the farmlands. The old truck made its way, its high-piled load on edge.

It was an orange glow flickering on the horizon that caused Thomas’s father to pull to the side of the highway.

Thomas looked up and asked, “What is it?”

Thomas’s mother dragged him under her arm. “Tom, just keep going.”

Thomas’s father stepped on the accelerator. He carefully steered the truck into the light of the flames. A house was burning to the ground.

“Wait here!” Thomas’s father shouted.

“No, Tom!” his wife cried out.

“Pa! Pa, look!” Thomas hollered.

The old man in the overalls was drunkenly stumbling from his house. His tobacco-less pipe was scrunched in his mouth, his Bible was grasped in his right hand. Orange flames covered what was left of him.

“Oh, my dear Lord,” Thomas’s mother moaned.

The old man dropped to his knees. He raised his eyes up to the sky and loudly declared, “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done—” The prayer stopped; muted by scorched lungs.

Thomas’s father leapt out of the truck and whipped off his jacket. He ran over to the old man and smothered the flames, trying not to inhale the acrid odor of burning skin.

As Thomas pushed back against his mother he saw something in the rear-view mirror. The moon hanging over the starved earth was in view; only the white moon . . . and a giant black bird flying off into the distance; a very tall man in a top hat perched between its wings.

The next morning in church Father Arness delivered his summary judgment. The congregation bowed their heads before him, and then prayed. In his too-small black suit, Thomas looked up from his prayer. His eyes ablaze, Father Arness shouted, “The Almighty hath decreed we must stay! Those of you who wish to leave, and those who have done so already, will, and have felt, the wrath of he who ruleth over all!

The congregation agreed in unison, “Amen.”

With a scowl, Thomas unclasped the bottom two buttons of his suit jacket. The butt of his pistol curved above his waistline like a snake ready to strike.

 

That night, it was quiet on the Reynolds farm. The family’s old truck was parked out front; still packed. Thomas’s mother and father were at the kitchen table. They talked, drank their bitter coffee, and read their Bible out loud.

Thomas raised his bedroom window. Still wearing his suit and armed with his pistol, he jumped outside and embarked into the ice-gray moonlight. A mile away from the farmhouse, in the middle of a dead wheat field, he brazenly drew his gun and looked into the night sky.

“Where are you?” he screamed.

There was no answer.

“I ain’t afraid! I ain’t afraid of you one bit!”

A light wind and a cloud of dust blew over him.

Thomas ran across the farmlands and made his way to the church. He crept inside and kneeled behind the last pew. At the altar, his hands clasped in prayer, Father Arness wept. Thomas studied him.

No, sir, Thomas finally concluded to himself. It wasn't him. Despite the vision he’d seen on the highway, Father Arness wasn't the Abe Lincoln man. Any man who could walk along with big spiders and ride on the backs of a giant birds . . . a man like that would never pray, and he would certainly never cry.

 

The old man’s house was nothing but a jumble of scorched wood. Thomas kicked past the embers and the smoking char, the full moon casting his shadow in front of him. There was a black patch in the dirt where the old man’s body had emblazoned its imprint. There was also a coiled piece of copper tubing, and farther on, the remains of a heat-wracked still.

The wind suddenly picked up and sucked the air from Thomas’s lungs. The hair on his neck bristled. His breath smoked out, chilled.

A shadow lengthened out in front of him, eclipsing the moonlight. The shadow had eight legs beneath it, with a long, top-hatted spire resting on top. As he turned to look, Thomas felt his courage bleed into the dry ground.

The Abe Lincoln man looked down on him from the back of the giant spider, and said, “Good evening.” His voice was like a low rumble of thunder; his face, a jet black visage of sharp, ebony-outlined features; his eyes, two saucer-shaped domes of polished silver.

Thomas took a step back. His body became rigid. He then took a deep breath, and said, “I . . . I ain’t scared.”

The giant spider’s mandibles click-clacked rapidly together, as if it was laughing. The man readjusted his top hat, placing it rakishly on the side of his head. He leaned down over Thomas, and hissed, “Oh, I think you’re scared, all right.”

Thomas held his ground, defiantly lifted up his chin, and replied, “I ain't scared ah nothin'.”

The man’s black face twisted into an impossibly blacker grin. “Do you know who I am?”

“Yep. You’re the one who burned up my Pa's friend. You’re the devil hisself.” Thomas woofed, his courage building, finding its way back.

The man laughed and then responded, “Your Pa's friend, he was thinking about leaving me. And that is something I cannot allow. I came here to have a drink with him, and to talk to him about it. But, unfortunately, during our talk, he forgot to check his still, and it exploded. And, no, I am not the devil.” His silver eyes glistened brightly. He tipped his hat and said, “If you like, why don’t you think of me . . . as family?”

Thomas heatedly vaulted back, “You ain’t no kin to me.”

“Boy, I am the twin brother of life. I am darkness to the light. I am—”

“Whatever the heck you are, it ain’t got diddly to do with me or mine.”

“Do you know what your mother and father are doing right now?”

“They’re praying to Jesus and having their coffee.”

“No. They’re talking about leaving. Leaving me here all alone. They don’t care what the preacher said.”

Thomas coughed up a wad of phlegm and spit it at the spider's feet. “We come and we go as we please.”

Frustrated, the man growled. “How is it you can see me?”

“It’s cuz of the fever.” Thomas replied. “They say I’m touched.”

The stabbing caw of the large black bird interrupted them. The leviathan swooped past overhead, then dove straight down, leaving a ribbon of curling dust. Then it veered off, high and away, in the direction of Thomas’s farm.

The giant spider suddenly rose up on four of its legs, then dropped down and spun around. The man waved to Thomas as he galloped away, “You and yours, boy! You and yours!”

Back at the farm, Thomas’s mother and father let the Kansas night unfold. Their idling truck loudly chugged and burped and waited.

“Thomas!” his father called out.

“Thomas!” his mother followed.

Thomas sprinted out of the darkness. “Ma, Pa! He’s comin’ this way, he’s comin’!”

Thomas’s father met him, lifted him up in his arms. “Where were you?”

“I cut across the Simmons’ place. I beat him here! But there ain’t no time, Pa! He’s comin’ in right behind me! He told me he’s the twin brother of life, an’ he’s comin’ to get us next!”

Thomas’s mother pointed behind her and cried out, “Twister!”

Thomas and his father snapped around.

A dark pillar of spiraling ash was half a mile out; a shape-shifting funnel cloud, vomiting bright flashes of splintered lightning.

Thomas’s father ran with him to the truck as his mother grabbed the hem of her house dress and leapt into the passenger side. Thomas looked back. He could see the man riding on the black bird, both of them circling and wildly diving in the spinning air of the cyclone.

Father threw Thomas inside to his mother and got behind the wheel of the truck.

Thomas yelled, “We can’t be scared!” He rolled across his mother and pulled the door latch. He barreled over her and out of the truck.

The Abe Lincoln man and his bird plunged from the crown of the towering spiral and descended in one fluid motion. The man leveled a withered hand and freed a column of Zeus light. It ripped into the ground in front of Thomas, but he didn’t stop. As the bird shifted its angle of descent toward him, Thomas went for his pistol.

“I told you once, I told you twice! I ain’t scared!”

He pulled the gun from its fine leather holster and took aim.

“I’m Thomas Reynolds Junior, damnit! And I ain’t scared ah nothin’!”

He pulled the trigger.

The silver pistol barked.

The Abe Lincoln man howled and reached for his chest.

 

Thomas’s mother would later claim that she’d hadn’t seen a thing; her eyes were closed tight in prayer. When the family settled in Salinas Valley, California, Thomas’s father glowingly told the story again and again. He would tell the other fruit-and-vegetable pickers of how a twister had hit on the same night the family was leaving out of Ford County, and of how they were all blinded by the smothering dust and the dirt, and were about to die, and of how the sky had suddenly and inexplicably cleared. For some unknown reason, the good Lord had called that twister back up into Heaven, and He’d spared their lives. It was a miracle, it had to be. There was no other explanation.

Thomas Reynolds Junior, his silver pistol packed away carefully under his bed, disagreed.

 

 

 


© Copyright 2018 David Portlock. All rights reserved.

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