When the Barnett family reached Wildweed, Arizona, it was around noon on a Thursday. George pulled the wagon to a stop in front of Mayfield’s General Store, an unpainted false front frame building with spittoons sitting on either side of the double doors and a crude bench placed under a fly-specked window that displayed a variety of tools. He glanced at his wife and muttered, “Well, honey, we’re finally here. Now all I have to do is get directions to the ranch.”
“Oh, George, do you think we’ve done the right thing by coming here?” Gloria asked as she shifted her two-year old daughter in her lap and looked around the small dusty town’s main street, plank sidewalks and other false front buildings.
Opal, the eldest of their four daughters, watched her mother’s reaction and could almost feel her disappointment in learning this would be the nearest town to their new home. Though they’d seen several towns such as this on their trip to Arizona, they’d all hoped to find Wildweed to be something a little different. Something more like they were used to in Memphis. But seeing the looks on all their faces, she knew it was not to be. This was it.
“Of course we have, dear.” Her father’s voice brought her back to reality. He went on, “Please try to be positive. We have a ranch that is all our own. It has no bank mortgage like the house in Tennessee. We will eventually have cows and horses and in the meantime, we’ll make our own living from the land. I’m sure we’ll never have to worry about money again.” He gave his wife a big grin and glanced at his daughters as he jumped down. “Don’t you girls agree with me?”
“Yes, Papa,” the girls riding in the back of the wagon said, but they didn’t sound as enthusiastic as they did when they first left Tennessee to claim the ranch George’s deceased brother had willed to him.
When the telegraph first arrived from Arizona informing George his brother had died and left all his worldly possessions to him, most of the Barnett family was elated. Only nineteen-year-old Opal was suspicious and she wasn’t sure why.
A Ghost of Gunfire
“Yes, it’s hot,” I said. “It’s summer. Summer weather in spring,” I corrected myself before one of my students did. “Sit down and finish writing your essays. Or start, whichever applies. You have exactly twenty minutes until the bell.”
It was hot. The material of my green polka dot dress was light and silky, but the three-quarter length sleeves bothered me. They were too tight to push up.
I thought I could hear the whir of Leonora’s fan in the next room. Wishful thinking. But her door was open. So was mine. Once I was reasonably sure Principal Grimsley wasn’t prowling the hall, I’d opened it.
Although this group met during fifth hour, it was similar to my last semester’s American Literature class. Large. Rowdy. On occasion, out of control. It lacked only former arch-troublemaker Denver Armstrong drawing his sketches of witches named Jennet.
Denver had turned over a new leaf after disarming the shooter and becoming an instant hero. Now a senior with only a few weeks of high school left, he went to his classes faithfully, carrying books. When we passed one another in the hall, he always had a bright smile and a greeting I’d once considered insolent: “Hi, Teach. How’s it going?”
One by one the students left the window. Penny, the last to return to her desk, studied her face in a compact.
Once fifth hour was over, my day grew easier with a small Journalism class and a conference period. That was fortunate as my energy tended to evaporate with the rising temperatures.
With the class relatively quiet, at last I sat at my desk, pen in hand, and made an attempt to assort the clutter. Papers out of their proper folders, the day’s announcements never posted on the bulletin board, a phone message from the printer.
A gunshot blast shattered the hard-won silence.
My head jerked up. The pen flew out of my hand. I scanned the class, looking for the shooter, for a body on the floor, for blood pooling on the floor.
The scene that met my eyes was typical. A few students working on their essays. Penny still contemplating her reflection. Nathan apparently asleep, his head resting on crossed arms. In the row next to the window, Margaret fanned herself with a magazine.
Again, nothing had happened. But in the stifling room, my arms were frozen, my icy hands shaking. If I tried to stand, I’d be unsteady.
How many times did this macabre scenario have to repeat itself before I learned my lesson? I was the only one who had heard the sound of gunfire.
But I could smell smoke lingering on the air, along with the gunshot’s echo. Yes. Smoke. There was no mistaking that acrid odor.
Obviously I was past the point of no return.
“What’s wrong, Mrs. Ferguson?” Penny asked.
I realized I was staring at her. Abruptly I pulled myself back to reality.
Penny whisked the compact out of sight and opened her book.
“Nothing,” I said and attempted a smile. “It’s just the heat.”
The Most Toys
He returned to the body. He contemplated his options as he towel-dried the remaining water from the corpse’s skin. It was almost dark outside and he could feel the cold of the night starting to creep up the spiral staircase. It would be much more difficult to dress the body than it had been to undress it. This was where his little pantomime would really come to life. He walked to the side of the stage and pulled a lever. The silent room grew loud with the mechanical lift and bounce of a number of contraptions and devices. He watched as a metallic structure supported by cabling emerged from under the base of the stage. It leveled itself out as it expanded to a height of six feet, each end almost touching the inner edge of the two exterior walls. His excitement grew as he studied the structure.
Fixed along its length were the dead bodies of five adults, all carefully preserved.
Coming Next Month
Never Say Goodbye by Mary Jean Kelso
Peace on Earth
by Paddy Bostock
by Paddy Bostock
Whisper of the Ozarks by Ed Koonce