A Normal Night at the Heartlands Tombstone
by Patrick Fisher White
part 1 of 2
At four minutes till midnight the Reverend Big Barb Nails rose from his crossroads grave and stretched his rotting flesh back across his weary frame. He was a big man, once had been handsome, but that was a long time ago. His church clothes had become tattered after many years in the dirt, but they still held together alright under the circumstances.
The dirt roads around him were the same as he remembered them, leading both to and from nowhere in particular. He straightened the wooden cross that marked his bed, and waited for Emily Doll to illuminate the phantom candles of the long-since abandoned Heartlands Tombstone Saloon.
Just as his ancient mind had remembered, the lights came on at midnight.
“I used to have a church here.” he remarked to Emily as he came through the swinging wormwood doors. She laughed at him from behind the bar, her painted wooden face as bright and cheerful as the day she was carved.
Even though the Reverend rose the closest to the nightly haunt, there were still a few folks who had beaten him there. Most notable was the Whiskey Lilly.
Oh, Whiskey Lilly, thought the Reverend to himself, the sweetest ghost a man could ever dream, her hair as black as night and her skin as white as cream. He smiled at her but she was too busy setting up her nightly set to notice. She came on at thirteen after and stayed on till thirteen before dawn. She played a coal-black guitar that she had been given by someone a long time ago, and she sang like all the angels in heaven were taking notes.
She had eyes just like diamonds, and the Reverend remarked about them every night. Just as he did tonight, to the wooden carved bartender who smiled in return.
“You fixin’ to talk to her ’bout that sugar?” asked Emily Doll from behind the bar.
The Reverend tried to blush, he tried very hard, but his withered and rotted flesh simply wouldn’t obey. He settled for shrugging instead. “That all depends...” he said.
“You waitin’ fer the good Lord to give you strength, then I reckon you’re a bit late for that train sugar,” said Emily. She had already poured him his favorite and slid it close with a delicate wooden hand.
Silver, Sassafrass, and blood: served piping hot. No one knew where The Heartland Tombstone got their drinks, and no one asked. It was just too nice to have them around.
“The good Lord will hear me, my child,” said the Reverend with a confidence born of memories he couldn’t quite remember. “The good Lord hears us all.”
Emily just laughed as she always did and wiped down the bar. The scorpions and rattlers had already cleared the place but there were always a few stubborn spiders that needed scaring off.
Needless to say, normal folk didn’t come within a hundred miles of the Heartland Tombstone. For them the haunted saloon was the stuff of nightmares. It had more legends, tall tales, and dire warnings than any other haunt in America.
Almost half of them were even true.
The man with nickel eyes settled into his usual chair and said as much to his two companions. One of these companions was named Doc Rocket and wore a lab coat and glasses. The other was called Doc Fyreside and he wore the black suit of a mortician. Both of them toasted the coin-eyed man, because the man was made of money. It was even his name: Mr. Money... and money talks a lot if you know how to listen.
This coin-eyed man laughed with the sound of bells and whistles and drank only pennies, but he had quite an appetite, even on a good evening, and tonight he was already calling for seconds.
“I’m gonna ask her tonight,” swore the Reverend into his drink. Emily Doll smiled at him as she watched The Amazing Atomic Skeleton enter the bar from his portal in the burnt painting on the wall.
She licked her wooden lips with a tongue made of sandpaper and said absently, “Sure you will hon, I believe in you.”
The Amazing Atomic Skeleton danced a jig, cracked his burning bones and sat down to the woefully out of tune piano. Word had it that there were even stranger piano players in the Heartland Tombstone back in the old days, but no one believed it.
Unfortunately the Skeleton’s comical piano warm-ups were drowned out by the revving of a powerful engine outside and the slamming of a heavy car door.
Mr. Money fairly gleamed at the sound. He straightened his bolo tie, gold naturally, and made certain the rubies in his smile held the spark of promise in them before Crocodile Cadillac, the last dragon of the west, burst through the swinging wormwood doors.
Crocodile stood seven feet tall and had covered nearly every inch of his scales in the skins of his cousins. He had an alligator cowboy hat, rattlesnake boots, a toad skin vest and a turtle shell belt buckle. His eyes were reptilian and yellow and his muscles strained at every heavy step he took. He covered the distance to the card table in three strides and sat down heavily.
Mr. Money already had the deck in his hand and was shuffling just as fast as the wind.
“High stakes or low, oh no oh no, which way to go?” called Mr. Money. Everyone laughed. High stakes were the only thing they had come for and not one of them would be satisfied with less. It was simply the only way the game was played in the Heartland Tombstone. It was the only game that mattered.
Sheriff Scarecrow Jack made his presence known in the usual fashion by slamming the door to Sweet Anne Lies’ bedroom and stomping downstairs just as loudly as his straw legs would allow him.
The Sheriff had a glare like a crooked line and two eyes made out of nails. Still he was a gentleman; he tipped his white hat at Emily Doll and The Whiskey Lilly before sidling up to the bar to make his nightly demands. “Red paint and gasoline,” croaked the Scarecrow.
“Now, Jack, you know that stuff ain’t good for you,” chided Emily Doll.
“I ain’t ask fer yer opinion, Doll. Jes’ pour the damn drink.”
Emily doll put up her hands in a gesture of surrender and poured the paint. The Reverend tried not to make eye contact with the Sheriff but found the nail-eyed lawman staring right at him.
“Help you with something, Sheriff?” asked the Reverend.
“You cain geet out,” said the Sheriff. Somewhere behind him the Whiskey Lilly began her first song, The Amazing Atomic Skeleton provided accompaniment on piano, and the card players let out a ragged cheer. Just like every night she had started with “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
“Sheriff, I don’t want any trouble,” said the Reverend.
“Then you can git,” growled the Scarecrow. His straw-filled gloves went directly to his pearl handled six shooters, and everyone at the bar knew he meant business.
“Sheriff please... I’m a man of God—”
“Yer a man of dirt and ye was a man of sin afore that,” said the Scarecrow. He spat a wad of paint at the Reverend’s feet and then leaned in close.
“I know what ye DID, padre, an’ I ain’t NEVER gonna let ye live it down... not one. Single. Night.”
The Reverend Big Barb Nails sighed a weary sigh and closed his eyes. He could hear The Whiskey Lilly behind him and her voice was like a soothing river. He didn’t remember much, he never did. He remembered loving The Whiskey Lilly since the day he was born... but he never did remember The Scarecrow fully and it hurt his head to try.
“A duel then?” asked the Reverend.
“The ground ain’t good enough fer yeh,” said Scarecrow Jack. He slammed his hand on the bar and yelled for another drink. This time Emily Doll gave it without a word and the Sheriff tossed it back.
“One hour, padre, and not a second after,” said the Sheriff. “At the usual place.”
“I know where it is, you...” The Reverend trailed off. He did not want to finish his words and become somehow father away from God. The Scarecrow laughed at him and wandered away as the Reverend turned to watch The Whiskey Lilly.
Unfortunately the card players were being a bit loud.
“Damnation!” called out Doc Fyreside as he slapped down five cards with disturbingly different corpses gloriously illustrated upon them.
“I do declare that Lady Luck has left the table,” added Doc Rocket, folding his own cards quietly.
Mr. Money stared at Crocodile Cadillac with a slight smile. His cards held three presidents, the moon on another, and the last simply declared: War. He felt like he couldn’t lose.
Somewhere above them a creature not quite living and not quite dead stirred from the noise. She put on her black silk stockings and the slinky black dress with the straps. She smiled at her reflection in the mirror and carefully sculpted her short black hair into a more agreeable style.
As usual the roses that had been left at her window were drained of color. They appeared there every day, left by romantics around the country hoping to win favor in love. They were reduced to paper as she set her gaze upon them and as she stroked them they became only ash.
She chose for this evening the sparkling diamond choker that lost its shine as it touched her skin, and the three rings of gold, silver, and tin. These all faded to the same color of tarnish and rust, but she liked them anyway.
Roots, she thought to herself again, a life, like a love, must have them. She wore no shoes and glided above the floor with grace. Downstairs was a card game that she simply had to watch.
Losers made the very best of lovers for Sweet Anne Lies.
“Your turn, Croc, to raise, to call or fold, but do it quick, we’re getting old,” cooed Mr. Money. The two doctors looked cross, but Crocodile Cadillac just laughed it off. It was a low sound like an avalanche building as it went downhill.
“I gots a flush hand,” rumbled Croc.
“And I could beat the devil himself with mine, though perhaps you will know that in time,” replied Mr. Money calmly.
Crocodile smiled again. The Doctors were both out of the round. Looking into those nickel eyes and seeing those ruby teeth, it was hard not to. Croc turned away and blew smoke from his steaming nostrils.
“Fold, you bastard,” said Croc. He held the kings of England in his hand, the past memories of them and whatever was left in their future... but he felt it couldn’t beat what Mr. Money was dealing. Mr. Money had scored early and gotten what he wanted. It was just like him.
Crocodile lost one hundred years from his life in the pot, as well as a thousand years of ancestral memory, four thousand baby snakes, and two full states worth of American souls. It was time to up the stakes.
“New hand,” said Croc, “Triple or nothing... You in?”
“Too rich for my blood,” said Doc Rocket. He had lost four planets in the solar system and a new source of energy that could catapult the human race into greatness. He was feeling more than a little ashamed of himself.
“Come on,” said Doc Fyreside, “I’ll buy you a drink.”
Fyreside only dealt in the dead. He didn’t care if he lost: he had more than he could handle already. It was said there was a man like Fyreside in every bar in America, if you only knew where to look.
Mr. Money began to shuffle the cards again just as The Whiskey Lilly and The Amazing Atomic Skeleton took their first break.
Copyright © 2012 by Patrick Fisher White