COMES CHRISTMAS

People instinctively think that what life is all about is some sort of complicated, incomprehensible thing…. I think a happy life is just about love — that’s it.
–Ben Nunery, graphic artist, Cincinnati

Thirty years ago, A CHRISTMAS STORY in film told of a nine year old boy named Ralphie growing up in 1940s Cleveland, wanting but one thing for Christmas: a Red Ryder BB gun. But there are other bygone Ohio Christmas stories to be told — stories from a parental perspective. This is one such story.

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Five years ago to the day — Tim and Karen Gordon’s first Christmas as man and wife — that’s how long it had been. His and her parents had traveled here to the middle of Ohio to spend the holiday with them for the first and — it turned out — final time. Really, that was the last result they would have expected.

They had known that their parents didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye, but even Scrooge would have been more sociable company in that setting. They didn’t know which had been worse: the ill-disguised hostile edge to the conversation before dinner, or the painfully obvious lack of conversation during that first shared Christmas meal. After dinner, both sets of parents had promptly up and left in a huff, and from that point on, it was implicitly understood that neither his nor her mother and father would welcome a return engagement.

So why did Karen do it? Why, after all this time, suddenly re-invite parents here to Columbus from opposite ends of the state — both literally and figuratively — when it would’ve been much easier to simply continue the practice of the past four years: Tim and Karen spending Christmas one year with his parents in Cleveland, Christmas the next year with her parents in Cincinnati. After all, what had changed? Yes, there was now a grandchild and they were now grandparents, but that only seemed to make them seem older, not mellower.

In any case, Tim had yielded to her determination on one condition — that several others also be invited to Christmas dinner in order to forestall the confrontation that was bound to re-erupt if decorum didn’t have to be maintained in the presence of outsiders. Thus he wound up inviting his eccentric boss, with whom he  didn’t have much in common, but who was single and without close relatives (and therefore presumably free for the holiday); the invitation was tentatively accepted, contingent upon being back in time from a business trip.

Karen invited their new next-door neighbors, the Crowleys, whom they had yet to get to know (but at least the Crowleys had given a definite acceptance — that is, until early afternoon, when they called to say their basement was flooded and they didn’t know if they could make it).

As for Tim’s and Karen’s parents, neither pair was told that the other had also been invited, but both must have had their suspicions — his parents had called yesterday to say snow was forecasted in northern Ohio with possibly hazardous driving conditions, and her mother had called from Cincinnati to say her father wasn’t feeling well. Both situations were presented as “coming if they could, but making no promises.” No wonder Karen’s exasperation reached its limits after the Crowley’s call — how does one prepare Christmas dinner for pick-a-number from none to seven guests? A definite “no” from any or all would’ve been preferable — not to mention, infinetly more considerate.

What’s the weather like out there, hon?” George Gordon asked his better half. He had just awakened and noticed her standing at the bedroom window looking out at a winter-gray Cleveland sky. “Is it snowing?”

It felt good to sleep late on Christmas morning (if almost eight-thirty could be considered late). If they were driving to Columbus today, he wouldn’t be able to stay in bed much longer. First breakfast, then church, then —

“It’s not snowing now, but it snowed overnight — looks like four or five inches on the ground.”

“Well, we’ll see what the driving’s like when we go to church. On the phone yesterday, Tim said they weren’t predicting anything more than flurries in Columbus.”

George had mixed emotions about going to Columbus — and not just because of the driving. Naturally, he and Vi wanted to be with their son and daughter-in-law for Christmas, but he couldn’t honestly say the same about Karen’s parents, Harry and Ruth Cain….and he had no doubt that they had also been invited. Oh, he supposed they had their good points. After all, they’d managed to raise a fine daughter — but he had never met two more opinionated — to say the least — people in his life.

George supposed he should he should get up and shovel the driveway before breakfast, but he couldn’t resist staying in bed a few minutes longer. Perhaps when he retired in a few years, this wouldn’t seem like a luxury, but for now….

Vi had gone to the kitchen to make coffee. Returning with a cup for him, he sat up as she sat down. He sip-tested his coffee: hot, hot, hot! Getting out of bed, he said, “I might as well shave while this cools.” When he came back, Vi was still sitting next to the bed. Of course, he knew what she was thinking. She would let it be his decision, but he knew she wanted to go.

“Too bad it didn’t snow four or five feet instead of four or five inches,” he muttered more to himself than to her, but he realized his comment fell flat, just the same.

“Either that, or didn’t snow at all,” she ventured to add pointedly.

By the time they left for church, it had started snowing again.

On Sundays and holidays, Harry always got up before Ruth to read the morning paper. He liked to give it a thorough reading, starting with the business news, front page, sports, and continuing until he had given at least a cursory glance to almost every page.

On this Christmas morning, it seemed vaguely materialistic to start with the business section, so he turned first to the front page. The once-a-year headline proclaimed PEACE ON EARTH, GOODWILL TO MEN, but the news was the same old disasters/do unto others whatever you could get away with doing — the usual bill of fare from which he had always felt somehow detached….until the morning of a sales trip almost a year ago when he’d overslept, missing the return flight home, and the plane crashed on takeoff with no survivors.

No one knew of his missed flight, as he’d not been expected back in Cincinnati  until the next day; he had wrapped things up faster than anticipated and decided to surprise Ruth by not calling to tell her he was coming home ahead of time. Having almost been on that plane wasn’t something that needed to be dwelled on, much less expressed. Without saying a word, he’d stayed over until his originally scheduled return and, to this day, had kept it to himself. As far as he was concerned, it was a non-event. End of story. He was in control.

“Merry Christmas, Harry.”

He lowered his newspaper to find his bathrobed wife standing there, and allowed himself to realize that they hadn’t really talked in years. He didn’t know why he should think of that now — tuning out when she spoke had inexorably become second nature, like drifting off into sleep over a long period without being conscience of it. It was as if he had become comfortable with….what? Even Christmas had become a ritual, full of trimmings and trappings, signifying nothing. Shakespeare said it — at least the last part — not him.

“Ruth,” he found himself replying, “I hate to change things at the last minute, but maybe we should reconsider not going to Karen and Tim’s today.”

A twenty-pound turkey was in the oven and the dining room table was set for nine — nine and a half, if you count their  three year old, who for the first time was old enough (Karen hoped) to sit at the table without a high chair.  Her head told Karen that not all those invited would come, but her heart insisted this was still a day for belief in small miracles….or, at least, their possibility. Her sense of the symbolic — Tim would call it wishful thinking — suggested that if long ago a little child would lead them, why not today?

Two o’clock. Three. Three thirty. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas without guests. The house was as quiet as an infant’s nap, and Karen turned on soft Christmas music to fill the void. Tim was nowhere to be seen, as if he might be tempted to say “I told you so” if he appeared.

Three forty-five. Karen was about to open the oven to check on the progress of the turkey when she heard Tim call from the front door, “I’m going to mail a letter. I’ll be back shortly.”

What mail could be so important that it had to go out now, she wondered, realizing even as she wondered: there was no mail pick-up today. He just wanted to get out of the house. Well, that was the privilege of being a man — what chance did she have of getting away for a few minutes? OK, maybe she was being childish . Maybe not.

Tim had hardly been gone when the doorbell rang. Karen composed herself and took a deep breath. Time for the first installment of “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” she thought as she went to the door and opened it.

It was Tim.

“I forgot my keys,” he mumbled, and for one wild, improbable moment, she imagined that he was about to spring an elaborately planned surprise and produce, as if by magic wand, a happily reconciled foursome of smiling grandparents; but he was already striding past her toward the telephone in the foyer. As he picked up the phone, he saw her watching him, and paused before dialing.

“I was just standing out there thinking what wimps we are to take this lying down,” he told her with self-righteous resolve. “I don’t care if they are our parents — does that give them the right to treat us like this? I’m going to call my mom and dad — you can do the same with yours — and if they answer, we’ll know they’re not coming and wish them Merry Christmas. If they don’t answer, they’re probably on their way — and even if they’re not, we won’t be any worse off than we are right now.”

She was about to protest that calling too soon might only aggravate the situation, but he was probably right. If people won’t meet each other half way, it’s already a lost cause — why prolong the agony? So she simply slumped down into the nearest chair and let silly thoughts dance in her head: Comes Christmas and all through the house, not a creature concurring, not even a spouse. She didn’t need him to prove that Christmas was just another day in the year….she conceded it.

But he had already begun to dial, and then the doorbell rang again, and all was lost in the blur ofgreetings and hugs, handshakes and kisses.

Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! And many other words were spoken: joyous words, tenative words, exuberant words, inadequate words. And if at times the laughter seemed just a bit forced and loud, or if occasionally a pause in the conversation seemed a trifle awkward, the moment soon passed. It was, after all, Christmas.

After dinner, gifts were exchanged, and then someone proposed a Christmas sing-a-long. Outside the frosted window panes, darkness had absorbed the last traces of daylight as voices joined to repeat the sounding joy. Away In A Manger, Jingle Bells, We Three Kings, Deck The Halls, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear — they sang until no one could think of another song.

In Cleveland, darkness had fallen clear and cold, freezing tracks and footprints left behind in the snow. In Cincinnati, snowless streets and sidewalks left no evidence of those who come and go. In Columbus, Christmas was an ember when Karen sank exhausted into bed next to Tim and received his half-asleep kiss; then, like a simple child, she lay there thinking contented thoughts about people who know nothing is more important than being there for you in something like the silent night.

THE END

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JOHNNY’S DILEMMA

    Clang-a-lang-a-lang-a-lang-a-lang-a-lang!
    The shrill loudness of the opening bell at Westside Middle School hurried Johnny’s steps all the more as he rushed into Mrs. Thompson’s 6th grade homeroom. Having made up a note from his mother excusing his absence yesterday was bad enough – he didn’t want to be reported tardy too.
    Reaching his desk just as Mrs. Thompson began the roll call, Johnny told himself to be cool. He had never been in trouble at school before, so there would be no reason to suspect that he….
    Before he could complete the thought, the classroom door opened and who should walk in but the principal, Mr. Matthews. Johnny slunk down in his seat as he watched Mr. Matthews beg Mrs. Thompson’s pardon for the interruption and say something to her in a low voice before leaving the room. Johnny did not have to wait long to learn what was said.
    ”As soon as I’ve finished calling the roll,” Mrs. Thompson announced, “Johnny Russell and Ronald Miller will report to Mr. Matthews out in the hall.”
    The next few minutes were a blur of wild thoughts as Johnny frantically tried to think what might have gone wrong. It wasn’t as if he had STOLEN Mr. Matthews’ ticket to yesterday’s Reds opening day game. So what if he knew whose ticket he’d found – Mr. Matthews could never love baseball as much as Johnny did. Johnny was going to be a baseball player when he grew up and play for the Cincinnati Reds and be a star – and besides, finders keepers.
    Now the roll call was over and Ronald Miller was already getting up from his desk and walking with his usual strut toward the door. Hesitantly, Johnny got up and followed. What had old man matthews been doing with a ticket to the game anyway? If the principal could get out of school to see the game, why couldn’t Johnny? It wasn’t fair that only important people get to do what they want.
    Mr. Matthews was waiting for them outside the door, somehow seeming much bigger up close than Johnny had realized. Johnny hoped that Mr. Matthews would deal with Ronald first – maybe Ronald had done something really bad, and what Johnny did would seem minor in comparison.
    Mr. Matthews came right to the point. “Friday, in Mrs. Pruitt’s last bell English class, I was sitting in the back of the room observing and taking notes. “I’d forgotten my notebook, so I was using the back of an envelope. In that envelope was a ticket to Monday’s opening game. After school, I realized that I’d left the envelope where I was sitting. I returned immediately to the room, but the envelope was gone and so was everyone but Mrs. Pruitt. She hadn’t noticed the envelope or who had found it, but she said no one else had entered the room after last bell, so it had to someone in that class.”
    Johnny tried to keep his expression from giving him away as Mr. Matthews paused to eye them before resuming. “One of you is wondering why you’re here; the other one knows why. It wasn’t hard to narrow it down to you two, because out of that whole class, only two students were absent yesterday – the day of the game.”
    Johnny froze as Mr. Matthews paused one last time before finishing: “”I’m going to give whichever one of you is guilty ONE MINUTE to think it over. Believe me, if whoever did it admits it, it will go a lot easier for you than if I have to find out myself.”
    His heart pounding and his mind racing, Johnny desperately tried to think of a way out. Then, just as he was about to give up, he glanced at Ronald Miller and it came to him.
    Suppose he told Mr. Matthews that he had seen Ronald find the ticket? Wasn’t Ronald one of the worst truants and troublemakers in sixth grade, while Johnny seemed like such a goody-goody that kids like Ronald made fun of him? It was obvious whom Mr. Matthews would believe. Not only would Johnny get away with it – he would also get back at Ronald for some of the dirty tricks Ronald had played on him.
    Mr. Matthews was about to indicate that time was up. Johnny knew it was now or never, but he hesitated….then, mustering up his last ounce of resolve, he did what he had to do.

                                            *****

    ”And that story by Johnny Russell is the winner, students, of my contest to write a plot which best illustrates the meaning of the word dilemma,” Mrs. Pruirtt announced proudly to her 6th grade English class, as if she herself might have written what she had just read to them. Johnny just sat at his desk, trying not to look embarrassed, but Mrs. Pruitt continued, “I hadn’t planned to give the winner a prize, but since this IS, after all, Reds opening day, Mr. Matthews and I decided to award a kind of ‘sur-prize’. Johnny, you are excused from class for the rest of the afternoon to watch the game on TV in the teachers lounge.”
    His classmates cheered and jeered as Johnny’s face reddened.
    ”Oh….one more thing, Johnny,” said Mrs. Pruitt. Mr. Matthews feels that it wouldn’t be much fun to watch the game by yourself, so you may pick one of your classmates – anyone you choose – to watch the game with you.”
    Johnny could feel the eyes fo the whole class on him as he stood up and looked out over the sea of expectant faces. Finally, he zeroed in on Ben, one of his best friends, and was about to name his choice when he caught sight of another face in the crowd – a scowling face with glaring eyes and ominous expression which made him think twice.
    It was the face of Ronald Miller.
    ”Mrs. Pruitt,” Johnny said, “I guess I don’t deserve a prize. I just realized I must have hurt Ronald’s feelings by making him the ‘bad guy’ in my story. But if I try to make it up to him by picking him to watch the game with me, he’ll think I’m afraid of him. So maybe the best thing to do is just say no – but thanks anyway for choosing me.”
    The room was suddenly very quiet as Johnny sat back down, while Ronald pretended to be indifferent, shifting in his seat and looking away.
    Mrs. Pruitt thought for a moment and then said, “Johnny, I know you mean well, but does that really solve the problem? You and Ronald need to put this behind you and, hopefully, learn something from it. So I want you to go ahead and enjoy the game and let ME choose who’ll watch it with you. And guess what – I choose Ronald Miller.”
    Johnny and Ronald looked from Mrs. Pruitt to each other and back to her again.
    ”Class,” Mrs. Pruitt proclaimed, “let’s give them both a big hand!”
    And with that, Johnny and Ronald got up and walked out of the room side by side as the sound of wild clapping and cheering followed them out the door. In fact, the clapping and cheering were so loud that no one heard the grunts and punches from the fighting that started as soon as they closed the door behind them.

NAMELESS RIDER

It first appeared as an advancing speck on the sundown horizon. Gates drew Cody Beeson’s attention to it, and the two stared in silence at the oncoming horseman. He was riding with reckless speed, straight toward their position on the herd’s periphery.
When he was within half a mile, Sam Gates drew his rifle and waited.
“That damn fool!” he muttered, holding his fire – knowing that a horse and rider bearing down hard on hundreds of cattle in fading daylight might spook them into a stampede, but a warning shot surely would. A hundred yards out, however, the lone rider drew up, took the measure of the two of them…then approached at a deliberate pace until within easy speaking distance. He was young, lean and wore the kind of smirk on his unshaven face that let you know he knew the situation with the cattle.
“You two figurin’ on taking that herd out the other end of this valley in the morning?’
Gates eyed the rider for a long moment, spat and said, “Maybe. Who wants to know?” His tone was hard-edged but steady, sensing there was no point in being either too challenging or too accommodating until he found out what the stranger’s game was.

The rider laughed the kind of short, dismissive laugh of someone who didn’t cotton to his question being questioned. “I do,” he answered, as if to give the impression that settled the matter – but knowing it didn’t, continued, “My name don’t matter. I’m just a messenger. The fellow I work for says if you want to drive your herd on through this valley, you gotta pay for the privilege. He’ll be along shortly with a few dozen of his friends for your answer. I rode on ahead to give you his terms.” The rider threw down a crumpled piece of paper at their feet and started turning to go.
“Not so fast, friend,” Gates called out, leveling his rifle at the rider’s middle. “Let’s take a look at that message of yours. Maybe we can make you a two-way messenger and save your boss the trouble.”
Gates motioned for Beeson to pick up the paper as the rider hesitated, now not so sure Gates wouldn’t just as soon shoot him, and to hell with the cattle. In the semi-darkness, Beeson held the paper up close to the campfire they’d started and read silently.
When he’d finished, he spoke for the first time. “Ha!” Then he looked up at the hesitating rider. “Son, the fellow that signed this – Doggett, if that’s his real name – must be a real joker. Does he seriously think anyone’d give him half a herd of cattle just to let the other half through?”
The rider shrugged his shoulders, and the smirk which had disappeared at the business end of Gates’ rifle made a partial reappearance. “When the alternative is losing the whole herd – and ending up dead besides – it don’t sound like so bad a deal.” With that, he suddenly reared around and took off, low in the saddle, into the gloom.

Sam Gates slowly lowered his rifle but otherwise stood unmoving until the rider disappeared from sight.
“You should’ve shot the bastard while you had the chance,” he heard Beeson say.
Gates continued to gaze straight ahead. “I could swear I know that hombre from somewhere – there’s something about him, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
Beeson grunted, “He didn’t seem to know you. Anyway, it’s too late now.” He re-crumpled the messenger’s piece of paper and threw it into the campfire. “Sounds like they got more than twice the number of men we got. What’s it gonna be – fight or pay?”
Gates looked up at the cloudless sky, where an almost full moon had risen above the low ridge of hilltops. “With that moon and a clear night, we’ll be able to see them a mile out. As they’re comin’ in, we’ll stampede the herd right at them. I have a hunch they’ll turn tail and scatter so far, they won’t know what county they’re in. You go ’round and get the boys into position. When I fire a shot, that’s the signal for everyone to start shootin’ and drivin’ cowhide – and don’t stop until you’re at the other end of this damn valley. After the shootin’, I’ll hitch up the supply wagon and meet you there.”

This wasn’t the first time Sam Gates had led a cattle drive north from west Texas to the railroad in Cheyenne County, Colorado, for shipment to markets in the east – but it was the first time he’d taken the short cut through the valley of the Smoky Hill River. Because of rustlers and outlaws, it hadn’t been worth the risk to save four or five days; but this year, time was against him – and besides, he’d heard that a certain measure of law and order had come to this part of eastern Colorado. Cheyenne Wells, the county seat, now even had a sheriff worthy of the name, was the word.
Time can play tricks on a man waiting with all senses focused and tensed, but it seemed as if Beeson had hardly left when Gates saw them. Like shadows in the moonlight, the horsemen rose up out of a slight depression in the distance where the nameless rider had disappeared from Gates’ sight. There appeared to be at least two dozen of them, all right, and they made no attempt to avoid detection as they came at a slow gallop.
He expected that Doggett would be wary and stop well short when he saw Gates alone at the campfire, suspecting a possible ambush. Gates stood in clear sight, but less than a jackrabbit’s jump from a nearby cottonwood tree, just in case some hot lead was aimed in his direction when the fun started.

As Gates had hoped, Doggett held up his hand for a mass halt at just the point where the stampede should be most effective. For an instant, Gates was tempted to wait and see what Doggett would do next; instead, he fired his rifle into the air, and all hell broke loose. Shots and shouted “hi…i…i…ya……a…a”s seemed to come from all directions, but only some of the horsemen turned tail and headed back the way they came. Others jumped off their mounts to take cover from the “ambush”…but Doggett, realizing that the shots weren’t aimed at them and hearing the oncoming thunder of frenzied hooves, dug spurs into his horse’s flanks and came right at Gates; he had sized up the situation and seen that Gates’ position was the one place the stampede wouldn’t be coming from. One of Doggett’s men followed right behind, and Gates didn’t stick around to welcome them. Diving behind the cottonwood tree as Doggett and his man sprayed wild lead in his direction as they passed, Gates heard scream after scream from horseless men trying in vain to outrun the panicked herd.
It was over in a matter of minutes.

Gates could again hear the crackle of the campfire as the stampede faded in the distance. He hadn’t moved from behind the tree as he considered whether to leave the chuck wagon behind for now and catch up with his men – when Doggett and his friend realized they weren’t being chased, they might decide to come back lookin’ for him. Not that two against one scared him – he’d faced longer odds than that before – but right now, he had a job to finish, and he couldn’t finish it dead. Hitching up the wagon, he would be an easy target – better to return for it with some of the boys later.

Just then, over the crackle of the fire, he thought he heard a moan coming from the direction where many of the Doggett gang had dismounted. Something made him disregard his common sense and walk toward the sound ; as he did so, the moaning grew louder – it seemed to come from behind a thigh-high boulder in an otherwise open stretch of ground. With his rifle at the ready, Gates approached warily and then, with a sudden burst, leapt past the rock, ready to fire.
“Easy now,” Gates said, dropping his rifle and kneeling down.
The moans were coming from a man stretched out face down in the dirt, mangled feet and lower legs sticking out beyond the boulder – apparently from not having had time to draw them in as he made a last second dive for protection from the stampede. His boots and chaps had been all but torn to shreds by repeated tramplings.

Gates knew he shouldn’t take time to help a common outlaw; against his better judgment, he told the man, “I need to get you by the fire where there’s better light.” As he turned the man over, Gates could not restrain an audible gasp – it was the messenger, and seeing his face again made Gates even more certain that this was someone he’d once known…perhaps, known well.
The semi-conscious man did not react to Gates’ utterance. He seemed to be in shock, or maybe he’d cracked his head on the boulder. In any case, time was wastin’.

Gates lifted him and made his way back to the campfire – but had no sooner set him down and begun to examine his wounds, than he heard the unmistakable click of a six-gun being cocked close by. Before he could make a move, a voice was telling him, “You try anything, you’re a dead man.” Two men stood some ten feet away, guns drawn.
What could he try? He’d left his rifle back at the boulder, and he carried no other weapon. Raising his hands, he slowly straightened up to face Dogget, his companion and, in each man’s hand, the glint of steel reflected in the flickering firelight.

Doggett was a mountain of a man with the kind of mean-eyed, gap-toothed, scar-marked face you’d expect in a no-account cattle thief. “Of course, you’re a dead man anyway, so it really don’t make much difference.”
“Is that how you reward a favor,” Gates stalled, nodding toward the wounded man. “Your messenger, here, got his legs busted up pretty bad, and I was just tending to him.”
Doggett gave a derisive laugh. “You ain’t doin’ me no favor – I can’t use a man with two useless legs.” Perhaps Gates imagined it, but at Doggett’s last words, he thought he saw, out of the corner of his eye, the wounded man’s face twitch and change expression. Doggett, however, was continuing to talk. “Besides, you got me wrong, friend. I ain’t gonna kill you – I’d rather just watch.” Nodding to his companion, Doggett grinned, “He’s all yours – and don’t spare the lead.”
Gates dove to the ground as a shot rang out – but it wasn’t aimed at him. He looked up to see his would-be executioner falling backwards as if poleaxed…and then he saw the smoking gun in the right hand of the partially upraised messenger, who then turned it toward Doggett – but Doggett was too fast for him. One quick shot and it was over…yet Doggett wasn’t satisfied. Cursing his victim, Doggett took deliberate aim and methodically pumped two more shots into him before turning his attention again to Gates.

But Gates had taken advantage of Doggett’s act of overkill to make his move. Springing from a crouch, Gates lunged at Doggett with everything he had, arriving just as Doggett turned his gun back toward him. Gates’ charge knocked Doggett’s gun hand upward, sending skyward the bullet intended for Gates, and the two men fell as one to the ground, each desperately trying to gain control of the gun as they rolled over and over.
Gates soon realized, as they struggled, that Doggett was the stronger man, and a physical battle was not the way to go if he wanted to survive…then he noticed that they had rolled near the dead body of Doggett’s messenger.The dead man’s gun must be still in his hand or laying close by! Using Doggett’s own momentum as leverage, he managed to send Doggett flipping past him, but in doing so, he had to release Doggett’s gun hand. Now his only chance lie in coming up with the dead man’s gun in the second or two it would take Doggett to regain his bearings.

Frantically, he vaulted the dead man’s body and saw the man’s gun hand – but no gun! Meanwhile, Doggett was scrambling to his feet and turning to locate Gates, gun outstretched – and then Gates spotted the dead man’s gun on the ground beside the body. As Doggett took aim, Gates flattened himself behind the body as he gropped for the gun and found the trigger.
Doggett’s shot tore completely through the dead man’s body. Gates felt pain in his side as his finger squeezed metal. Looking up, he saw Doggett recoil but not fall, then sway back and forth like a common drunk before sinking slowly to his knees and pitching forward, face down.
Gates wasted no time trying to collect himself or checking his own wound. He picked himself up, stumbled over to where Doggett lay and turned the stricken man face up. Doggett’s eyes flickered open. Whether or not he could see the rage in Gates’ eyes, he could hear it in Gates’ voice.
“Tell me the name of your messenger!” Gates hissed, gun pressed against the space between Doggett’s eyes. As Gates watched closely, Doggett’s lips seemed to be forming a reply, but no sound came out… even so, there was no mistaking the two words uttered in silence.
It seemed almost as if Gates were someone outside himself, being a spectator as his finger pulled the trigger.