“Why don’t you help Mr. Oldfield unload the wagon, Johnny,” said Mr. Cartwell.
“Yes, Mr. Cartwell,” said Johnny.
Mr. Cartwell ran Cartwell’s General Store, and the job Johnny had here was boring most of the time, but Johnny’s ma wanted him to have a proper upbringing, and with no pa to speak of, he was stuck here for the time being, here in the small town of White Cross.
Johnny was thirteen, but he’d be fourteen soon, and he was already taller than his ma. His ma was a widow, because his pa had died back when he was only seven, but his pa’s death had taught him some things about life in general, and he kept those lessons close to his heart at all times.
His ma was fortunate enough to work for Mr. Cartwell, and that was why Johnny worked for Mr. Cartwell too, though he only got a third-pay. That was nowhere near what he wanted, what he deserved, but he’d get that soon enough. He was determined to put his pa’s history in the past where it belonged, start a new life, and be someone respectable that would make his ma proud.
But he still had a job to do in the here and now.
Johnny walked outside to tend to Mr. Oldfield’s wagon. There were bags of flour, bolts of cloth, little goods like spools of thread and wooden boxes of needles, and other such sundries waiting to be unloaded from the wagon. Mr. Oldfield was inside the store collecting his payment from Mr. Cartwell, so it was up to Johnny to get things started.
“A good morning to you, Johnny Tucker,” came a familiar voice.
Johnny turned to eyeball Lillian Magner. She was his age, but she had been paying him a lot more attention as of late. Her pa was rich and owned the bank; the old man had made his fortune after the war.
He really didn’t understand Lillian, though. A rich girl like her didn’t need to be bothering a poor widow’s son like Johnny. Her visits irritated him a little, especially when she used his full name.
“Do you always gotta say my last name?” frowned Johnny.
The young lady sported a fine sky-blue dress with white flower embroidery, and in her white-gloved hands was an equally fine white parasol. Her blonde hair was done up in curled braids, a new style of coif she was probably showing off, probably to him, though he didn’t care for that sort of thing.
She twirled the parasol around in her fingers and shone him a clever smile.
“It’s a sign of respect, Johnny,” she said wistfully. “You could do with a little class.”
“I been to class,” said Johnny. “Ma says I gotta go.”
He hopped into the back of the wagon and picked up a couple of large bags of flour.
“Not that kind of…Never mind,” sighed Lillian. “Anyway, I can see you’re hard at work today.”
“Yep,” nodded Johnny. “Mr. Cartwell needs me to unload these goods for the store. Mr. Oldfield will unload too as soon as he comes to an agreement on payment with Mr. Cartwell. I hope they hurry up, too. It’s gonna be hot today. That sun ain’t showing a mercy to me.”
“I’ve heard that Mr. Cartwell is going to give a certain someone the store once he passes on,” said Lillian. “It’s on account that he has no children.”
“Oh?” asked Johnny. “Who’s that?”
Lillian rolled her eyes, and Johnny immediately figured out who that “certain someone” happened to be.
“Naw,” he replied in firm denial. “That ain’t right. Cain’t be me. Where’d you hear that gossip?”
“I overheard Mrs. Pritcher telling Mrs. Olsen,” nodded Lillian. “I was down at the bank with my father.”
“Yeah, yeah,” waved off Johnny. “My ma would a said something to me if that were true. Even if it is, I don’t want to run no general store.”
“What’s wrong with running the store?” asked the young lady in audible confusion. “My father says that’s a good and upstanding job.”
Johnny continued to unload goods from Mr. Oldfield’s wagon, but this conversation was starting to grate on him. Nevertheless, Lillian hadn’t particularly said anything mean to him, so there was no reason why he couldn’t explain himself.
He picked up a large sack of flour and moved it underneath the awning at the back of the store. He’d move the goods inside after he was done unloading the wagon.
“If you really want to know…” said Johnny. “If you really want to know, I’m gonna be famous. I’m gonna be a gunslinger like my dad.”
“Johnny, your father was an outlaw,” said Lillian. “He was hanged.”
“Yep,” said Johnny.
He acknowledged that fact, and he had figured she would say that anyway.
“That don’t mean I have to be an outlaw,” he continued. “I’m gonna be a deputy first, and then I’ll move up to sheriff. Then, I’ll head to Texas to be a Texas Ranger.”
“Oh…” said Lillian, but she did not sound happy.
He studied her pretty face for a moment, but she looked just as unhappy as she had sounded.
“What?” he asked.
He was unsure as to why she would be unhappy about his life choices, but their conversation was interrupted by a newcomer, a voice Johnny had never heard before.
“Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” came that unfamiliar voice.
Johnny turned to address this new stranger.
A tall and thin man stood before them, this stranger dressed in the black cloak and white collar of a preacher, though he had a wide-brimmed black-felt boater hat over his narrow face to keep off the heat of the sun. He had a hard face, one used to wind and rain, so he was a traveler, though Johnny had never seen his like before, not here in White Cross.
“Then said Jesus unto him,” continued the stranger, “put again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter Twenty-Six, Verse Fifty-Two.”
“The chapel’s that way, Mister,” nodded Johnny. “I take it you’re here to see Preacher Goodie?”
“Ah, yes,” nodded the man.
Johnny studied him, but for the life of him, he could not tell this man’s age. This man had clearly lived a hard life, so he was anywhere between thirty and fifty…Johnny simply couldn’t narrow down a range of years.
Johnny felt Lillian’s hands around his waist. The young lady was holding onto him, hiding behind him in fact, her head poking around his right shoulder, though why she would be afraid of a preacher-man, Johnny had no idea.
“Are you replacing Preacher Goodie?” asked Johnny.
“No,” said the tall stranger. “No, I’m just passing through. However, I shall stop at the White Cross Chapel and speak with Preacher Goodie.”
“Who are you, Mister?” asked Johnny.
“I am Missionary Malach,” nodded the man. “You must be young Johnathon Tucker. That means the young lady behind you can only be the lovely Lillian Magner.”
“You have me at a disadvantage, Mr. Malach,” frowned Johnny. “How is it you know our names?”
The tall stranger smiled, though his smile was not comforting in the least.
“White Cross is a small town,” he said. “Your names are not unknown to me.”
“Right,” nodded Johnny. “Well, it was a pleasure meeting you, Preacher Mala—”
“Missionary Malach,” corrected the tall man.
“Right,” nodded Johnny again. “Missionary Malach. It was a pleasure meeting you, but I gotta get back to work. These goods don’t move themselves.”
“Of course,” nodded the missionary in return.
He started to leave in the general direction of the chapel, but he stopped, turned, and gave Johnny one last cold smile.
“Remember this well, young Mr. Tucker,” said the stranger. “Beware the darkness in your own heart. Those who seek darkness shall find it.”
Now Johnny did not like this. He did not like strangers up in his business, especially some preacher-man with a high-and-mighty attitude.
Johnny answered the man with a short tone, though he had not intended to be short with him. This man had simply rubbed him the wrong way.
“I’m counting on it, Mister,” frowned Johnny.
“Are you now?” asked the missionary. “You should not say such things, young man…Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter Seven, Verse Twelve…We treat others with equal kindness, compassion, and mercy, Mr. Tucker.”
“I’ll treat a no-good varmint like they deserve, Mister,” growled Johnny. “That ain’t nothing a bullet cain’t cure.”
“So be it,” grunted the stranger. “You will learn one way or another, Mr. Tucker, though I doubt you will enjoy the lesson.”
The tall man dressed in black walked off after that, not even turning his head to look around. No, he made a beeline for the chapel in the distance, but Johnny was fine with that.
“Good riddance,” muttered Johnny.
“You shouldn’t be rude to a pastor, Johnny,” said Lillian quietly.
Johnny turned and gave her an incredulous stare.
“You’re hiding behind me, and you’re gonna give me a lecture on rudeness?” he asked in disbelief.
“He was kind of scary,” shrugged Lillian. “He might be right, though…”
“Oh, really?” asked Johnny.
He was feeling uppity now.
“And what might he be right about?” he asked.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be a lawman,” said Lillian. “Working at the store is a good way to make a living…and…you might get shot and killed being a deputy or…or a sheriff.”
“Nah,” he said as he waved her off. “I ain’t worried ’bout that. I been practicing with my pa’s old pistol…I’m fast. I learned my pa’s tricks. Only good thing he done for me…Yep, I can outdraw any no-good outlaw. Just you wait. I’ll have my name in the papers.”
“Can you even shoot?” asked Lillian.
“Of course, I can shoot,” frowned Johnny. “I can hit a bullseye at ten paces, no fooling. I carry my pa’s pistol with me to work and back home. Practice with it every day. I can even wear his old gun belt. Mr. Cartwell makes me put it away in the store, but it’s in there. He gives me a discount on bullets, though he don’t like the idea of it. He don’t want me to end up like my pa, but that ain’t gonna happen. I’m gonna be a deputy as soon as I age a few, so…yep, I can shoot.”
Lillian stared down at the dry ground as her face darkened with what looked like worry. Johnny shook his head at the expression, for he did not know what to make of it.
“What?” he asked.
Lillian shook her head and refused to speak for a moment.
Johnny shook his own head and walked back to the wagon out of both necessity and frustration. He still had a job to do.
He hopped up into the wagon and dragged out three bolts of cloth.
“Johnny, I…” began Lillian, but her sentence trailed off as it ended with a gasp.
Alarmed, Johnny turned to study the frightened expression upon her pretty face.
“What?” he asked. “What is it?”
“Johnny…” said Lillian, her lips aghast. “You…You don’t have a shadow!”
“What?” asked Johnny. “What are you…”
He looked behind himself to view the brightly-lit ground where his shadow would be. The sun was beating down upon the both of them, and in fact, that celestial orb was beating down upon the entire town of White Cross, yet he had no shadow.
Johnny turned, walked ten paces, swiveled around, and then walked back again. No matter which direction he turned, he still had no shadow.
He felt a cold spell sink into him, a chill that traveled straight down to his bones. Something mighty strange was going on here, but what that could be, he had no idea.
“Maybe we should take you to Preacher Goodie,” said Lillian in a hushed tone.
“No,” said Johnny in emphatic denial. “Whatever’s going on, it’ll fix itself. I ain’t going to the preacher, not unless things get really bad, but that ain’t gonna happen. Everything’ll be fine by tomorrow, you’ll see.”
“I hope so…” said Lillian, but she sounded unsure.
Johnny certainly hoped so, too. He didn’t like the sound of this, but he felt physically fine, so…he really hoped everything would right itself.
The sun was going down in the west.
Johnny was currently taking inventory of the day’s stock as Mr. Cartwell counted the money he had made off of the day’s business.
The interior of the store was stuffy and hot due to the summer heat, but Johnny was used to it. Things would cool off once the sun went down anyway.
He turned and gave a brief glance toward Mr. Cartwell. The shop owner looked up at him from behind the store counter and nodded once in return.
“You’d better get on home, Johnny,” said Mr. Cartwell.
“I don’t live that far away, Mr. Cartwell,” said Johnny.
“I know, but your ma is waiting for you, and no one likes to eat supper in the dark,” said the man. “Summer days are long, but the time can slip away from you. I do appreciate the extra help you put in, though, Johnny. You’re a hard worker.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cartwell,” nodded Johnny.
“Why don’t you skedaddle,” said Mr. Cartwell. “You can come in late tomorrow, okay?”
“If that’s what you want,” said Johnny.
“You’ve earned it,” said Mr. Cartwell.
“Okay, then, Mr. Cart—” began Johnny, but he was cut short.
The door to the general store opened as Samuel Magner walked in with Lillian. Johnny had not expected to see either one of them in the store at this hour, and apparently, neither had Mr. Cartwell.
“Why Mr. Magner!” said Mr. Cartwell in excitement. “I hadn’t expected you in here!”
“The store is still open, is it not?” asked the wealthiest man in town.
Lillian’s father was a dapper man sporting a fine brown suit, a waxed handlebar mustache, and a nice brown bowler hat. He carried a brown wooden cane in his gloved left hand, though Johnny seriously doubted the man needed it to properly walk.
“Of course, of course!” nodded Mr. Cartwell. “Come right on in!”
“Excellent,” said Mr. Magner in return.
“What can I do for you this evening?” asked Mr. Cartwell.
“It’s more what you can do for my Lillian,” said Mr. Magner. “She was wondering if that Parisian parfum had arrived today.”
“Yes, yes,” said Mr. Cartwell. “That’s a rather expensive item, but it arrived, nonetheless.”
The shopkeep turned and reached up for one of the small box-shelves on the wall behind the counter where the smaller, more-expensive items were kept.
“I have it riiiiiiight here,” he drawled out.
He pulled out the crystal bottle of overpriced liquid and took to wrapping it in brown paper.
Mr. Magner took that moment to walk up to Johnny and look him over.
Johnny did not understand what all of the eyeballing was for, but he suffered it for Lillian’s sake. He did not want to embarrass her in front of her own father.
“You must be Mr. Tucker,” said the dapper man with a slight frown.
“Yes, Sir,” nodded Johnny.
“Well, straighten up, young man,” said Mr. Magner. “Don’t slouch…Let me have a look at you…I’ve heard good things about you. I’ve heard you’re a hard worker.”
Johnny straightened up as best he could and then answered as best he could.
“Yes, Sir,” he said firmly. “I ain’t…I haven’t missed a day since I started working here.”
“Hmm…” said Mr. Magner with a brisk nod. “Well…Keep up the good work. White Cross needs more people with integrity.”
“Yes, Sir,” said Johnny firmly. “I will, Sir.”
“Well, I must settle my debt with Mr. Cartwell,” said Mr. Magner. “Good day, Mr. Tucker.”
“Pleasure meeting you, Sir,” nodded Johnny.
The dapper man parted Johnny’s presence and quickly settled his debt with Mr. Cartwell.
“You should take a lantern with you, Mr. Magner,” said the shopkeep.
“Our driver has lanterns on the carriage, Mr. Cartwell,” said Mr. Magner. “We’ll be fine.”
“Then good evening to you, Mr. Magner,” smiled Mr. Cartwell. “Don’t be a stranger now.”
“Of course,” nodded the wealthy man.
Johnny nodded at Lillian as the pair took their leave. The young lady smiled in return, a strange expression of contentment upon her pretty face. Johnny did not know what was going on in her head, but whatever he had done or said, he knew he had impressed her.
“It’s time for you to get a move on too, Johnny,” said Mr. Cartwell. “Mr. Magner may not need a lantern, but you should grab one just in case. You don’t want to run into coyotes in the dark.”
“I’ll get the old lantern, but I got my pa’s gun, Mr. Cartwell,” said Johnny. “I ain’t afraid of no coyotes.”
“Well, you be careful with that pistol, youngin’,” warned Mr. Cartwell.
“Yes, Sir,” sighed Johnny. “I been practicin’ every—”
He did not get to finish his line of verbal thought. The loud bang of a gunshot echoed outside right along with the accompanying sound of shattering glass.
Johnny hit the floor for cover as Mr. Cartwell ducked behind the counter of the general store.
“Get down, Johnny!” yelled the middle-aged man.
“You’re preaching to the choir,” said Johnny in a hushed breath.
He looked up to see that one of the corner windows of the store had been shot out. It occurred to him in stark reality that Lillian was still outside, as he seriously doubted her carriage had left yet. This panicked him in a way he had not foreseen, and he reacted as such.
“Lillian’s out there!” he yelled. “I’ve gotta go get her! I need my pistol!”
“Johnny, keep down!” barked Mr. Cartwell. “Let the law handle it!”
But Johnny was already on his feet and running into the back stores to grab his pa’s pistol. His pa’s old Colt Dragoon was a trusty piece that Johnny was well practiced with, and now he was getting the chance to use it.
Johnny strapped on his gun belt, even as more shots rang out in the night. The sun had completely set, so whatever was going on outside was made even deadlier by the fact that there wasn’t anything out there but lantern light.
“Johnny, don’t be a fool!” yelled Mr. Cartwell. “You’ll get yourself killed!”
“Sorry, Mr. Cartwell!” yelled back Johnny. “I gotta save Lillian!”
He opened the front door of the store, ran out onto the wooden deck, and immediately ducked behind two of Mr. Cartwell’s empty shop barrels.
He could see Mr. Magner’s carriage, as it was lit by four lanterns hanging down from its four corners. The four horses drawing it were chomping at the bit, the driver crouched down in a huddled position beside those horses, desperately attempting to keep them from bolting.
Upon further inspection of the scene, Johnny could see Mr. Magner lying in the dirt of Main right next to his carriage, Lillian crouched above him.
“Lillian!” he called out.
Against his better judgement, he ran out to the pair, though he knew this was a truly stupid thing to do.
Lillian looked up at him with fearful eyes.
“Father’s hurt!” she cried.
The wealthy man sat up and clutched his left arm above the elbow.
“It appears I’ve just been grazed,” he said unhappily. “The cowardly cad ran off after firing several rounds at us.”
“Did you get a look at him, Mr. Magner?” asked Johnny.
“No,” said the injured man. “He was a tall man in black, but he was cloaked in shadow, so I don’t know who he was.”
The town was already ablaze with more lanterns, and the sheriff and his deputies had arrived, guns out and ready. Johnny was certainly glad for the sight of them.
“The law’ll get ‘em, Mr. Magner,” nodded Johnny.
“I know they will, young man,” frowned Mr. Magner. “I’ll make sure of it.”
Johnny stood outside of Cartwell’s General Store, broom in hand, ready to sweep. He had just taken to the task when he looked up to see Lillian Magner, though this time the young woman was dressed in a white dress with red roses embroidered upon it. She was lovely as always, though Johnny didn’t think on such things often.
She twirled a large white parasol between her fingers and gave Johnny a onceover.
“Johnny Tucker,” she smiled.
“Lillian,” he said in return.
He took to sweeping again, mindful of her presence, but he would let her start the conversation. He wasn’t much for talking with girls anyway.
“I was worried about you,” said Lillian.
“Worried about me?” asked Johnny in disbelief. “What in the heck for?”
“You still have no shadow, Johnny,” frowned Lillian. “I can tell, even though you’re standing under the awning.”
“I…” started Johnny.
He shook his head and continued sweeping. He was not going to think about that topic.
“I ain’t worried about that,” he said unhappily. “That’ll fix itself. I’m sure of it…Let’s talk about something else. What are you here for anyway?”
The young woman frowned in return at Johnny’s curtness, but then she sighed and changed subjects anyway.
“I wanted to thank you for coming to our aid,” said the young woman.
“Eh, it’s okay,” shrugged Johnny. “Somebody shot at your pa. It’s been the talk of the town this morning…Don’t you worry, though. I’m sure the law’ll get that no-good varmint that shot at ya. They’ll fill him full a lead. Just you wait…Heck, I was ready to put some bullets in him, myself. Cain’t believe someone would shoot at you, Lillian. Makes no sense. If somebody did shoot you, I’d put him down like a dog.”
“Johnny, I—” began Lillian, but she did not get to finish her sentence.
“It’s a difficult thing to kill a man, Mr. Tucker,” came a familiar voice.
Johnny looked up to see the tall and dark stranger from the day before, this “Missionary Malach.” The man had appeared like a ghost in the street, like some specter that had made its unwanted presence known. He was dressed in his black missionary garb, a wide-brimmed black-felt boater hat on his head, his look finished by fine black boots on his narrow feet. His dark outfit made his sudden appearance feel even more uncanny than it should have been.
Whatever the case, Johnny did not feel like taking any guff from this strange preacher.
“Is that so?” asked Johnny in open defiance. “I reckon you just aim and pull the trigger, Mister.”
This gaunt man, this “Missionary Malach,” leaned his head slightly to one side and gave Johnny a stern and discerning look.
“It’s more than just pulling the trigger, Mr. Tucker,” said the clergyman. “It’s the consequences that come with it.”
“The consequences for shootin’ down a criminal?” asked Johnny in disbelief. “That’s what the law is for, Mr. Malach!”
“The law is for keeping the peace, young man,” said Missionary Malach. “It is not for killing with impunity.”
“You’re saying the sheriff and his deputies cain’t defend themselves?” asked Johnny.
“It means they must abide by their duty,” said Malach. “They may be forced to kill as a last resort. However, they are not judge, jury, and executioner.”
“The law’s my hero, Mister,” said Johnny through narrowed eyes. “If it weren’t for them—”
“Heroes save lives, Mr. Tucker,” said Malach. “They don’t take them.”
“Says you,” argued Johnny. “I’m gonna be a Texas Ranger when I get older, and I’m gonna hunt down varmints like that one that shot up the town last night.”
“Texas Rangers bring in wanted criminals for judgement,” warned the missionary. “They only kill when they are forced to.”
“I know what the Texas Rangers are like,” frowned Johnny. “I don’t need you to tell me that…I ain’t my pa. I ain’t gonna be like him. I’m gonna hunt down criminals.”
“Will you now?” asked Missionary Malach.
The tall and slender man in black held a grim smile on his face.
“I know all about your father, young man,” he said. “Your father fell in with Robert Peach.”
Lillian gasped, and Johnny took a brief second to look over at her surprised face. He’d known who his father had run with, but that didn’t mean the whole town had to know.
He looked back at the missionary, ready to give the busybody a piece of his mind, but Mr. Malach spoke first, and what he said stopped Johnny from completing any sentence.
“That pistol of yours wasn’t even your father’s,” said Malach.
He nodded toward Johnny’s right, and Johnny looked over to see his pa’s gun belt and pistol on top of the empty store barrels, the same store barrels he’d hidden behind just the night before.
“Wait…That’s back in the storeroom…” said Johnny in confusion.
He snatched up the belt and quickly inspected it, but one thorough glance told him that it was indeed his pa’s.
“That is Robert Peach’s Colt Dragoon,” said Missionary Malach. “He killed over thirty men with that gun. He gave it to your father as a reward for helping him rob the bank in Veldt, sixty miles from here.”
“How do you know that, Mister?” asked Johnny.
Something was wrong here, very wrong. Even Johnny hadn’t known that about his pa.
Johnny quickly strapped on his pa’s gun belt, even as the preacher-man continued on with his diatribe.
“I know many things you do not, Mr. Tucker,” continued the tall man in black. “However, that is not the issue here, nor is it relevant to my umbrage with your position…No, my teaching is thusly so…There is nothing wrong with being a lawman. What’s wrong is your disregard for the lives of others, and that is the legacy disgraced upon you by your father.”
Johnny locked his gun belt into place. Whatever was going on, he needed to be ready, especially with Lillian out here.
“My pa was no saint,” scowled Johnny, “but he was still my pa, and you don’t badmouth someone’s pa, Mister. Preacher-man or not, you best git before I fill you full of lead from Robert Peach’s Colt Dragoon.”
“You should have learned your lesson last night,” smirked the strange and hostile missionary. “I thought you had learned something by seeing to the safety of others, but it appears another lesson is in order.”
And that’s when it clicked. Johnny knew what was going on now, and he was furious.
“You shot at Mr. Magner!” he cried. “It was you!”
“Me?” asked Missionary Malach. “The darkness in your heart is out roaming free, young man. No, you need to point the finger at yourself, young Mr. Tucker. Better yet, why don’t you look to the sky.”
Johnny stepped forward off the porch to confront this hostile clergyman, but he stopped cold as the sky began to darken.
He looked up to see the black round of the moon slowly crawl across the sun, something he’d heard of in class, something called an “eclipse,” but he’d never thought he’d live to see one.
“What’s going on, Johnny!” cried out Lillian.
“What is this, Mis…ter…” began Johnny, but his voice trailed off as he realized something very important.
The strange missionary was nowhere to be found.
Johnny turned his head left and right, but there was no sign, no trace of the hostile clergyman.
People from around White Cross left their buildings and houses to view the strange, once-in-a-lifetime event.
The sky grew as dark as night as Johnny kept his right hand over his pa’s gun.
He walked slightly down Main and then moved in a trot toward the sheriff and his deputies. He was going to report that missionary posthaste.
He had just walked up to the lawmen when shots rang out in the street. The very people he looked up to dropped around him as Johnny ducked down and searched for somewhere to run. Sheriff Williams fell first, then Deputy Smith, and then Deputy Adams was shot down right after that, one, two, three in an ambush of bullets.
Johnny’s mind, however, ditched the idea of protecting himself. No, his thoughts shifted to Lillian, and he backed away from the fallen lawmen as he turned to address her safety.
The young woman had walked out into Main like all of the other townsfolk, probably on a hesitant path to follow Johnny, though she had left her parasol behind on the porch-deck of the general store. Nevertheless, her curiosity had now put her in danger, and that was something Johnny could not help but panic over, because now she was frozen with fear; he could tell that even through the descending darkness.
“Run, Lillian!” yelled Johnny.
The young woman took off toward the entrance of the store, but she never made it there. Dirt kicked up in a cloud as bullets impacted right in front of her, effectively freezing her advance. Lillian shrieked as she fell backwards to her rump, but she was uninjured; Johnny could tell that from a quick glance.
Johnny turned in a circle to see where the gunfire was coming from.
There was just enough light from the eclipse for Johnny to see the assailant of White Cross. A shadowy figure stood at the end of Main, but it was not the tall and slender form of Missionary Malach. No, this new man was all dark, wreathed all in shadow, all except for a pair of red eyes, red eyes that pinpointed Johnny’s position in the dirt street, homing in directly upon him.
“Boy…” said the man from down the street.
This attacker was some distance away, but for some reason, Johnny could hear him just fine, even over the screaming and the slamming of doors around Main.
The stranger wreathed in shadow holstered his piece and gave Johnny the staredown, a staredown consisting of two piercing red eyes, two terrible scarlet-orange eyes that burned a hole right through Johnny’s soul.
Johnny’s right hand shook as it hovered over his pa’s gun.
“Who are you!” yelled Johnny.
“That’s my gun…” said the man in a guttural voice, a voice that sounded graveled over with swallowed sand.
“R…Robert Peach?” stammered Johnny.
“Rober Peach gave me that gun…” said the man. “Now…draw, boy…”
It hit Johnny right then, a revelation of insane proportions, and he did not like the implications of it.
“P…Pa?” stammered Johnny yet again.
“Draw, boy…” said the hostile stranger.
“Y…You cain’t be my pa,” said Johnny in disbelief. “My pa’s dead…”
“Draw, boy…” repeated the gunman. “Draw…so I can take back my gun…”
Johnny felt his knees buckle. Now that he was in a tight situation, a situation he’d often daydreamed about, he did not want to be in it. He did not want to be in this fight, certainly not against his own pa.
“I cain’t…” said Johnny in vocal obstinance. “I cain’t do it. I…I…I cain’t fight you, Pa.”
“Draw…” commanded the shadowy man. “Draw…or I’ll kill the girl.”
Lillian whined as Johnny gave her a quick glance. He looked back toward the stranger and shook his head no.
“You…You cain’t kill people anymore, Pa,” he said in a wavering voice. “It’s wrong!…Why would you wanna kill Lillian anyway? She ain’t done nothing to nobody!…You…You gotta turn yourself in, Pa.”
The man grunted out a short guttural laugh.
“You’re not my son…” said the shadow man. “You’re just a lilly-livered coward…You’ve got no gumption, boy…I brought you into this world…and now I’m gonna take you out of it…I won’t have no coward for a son…You’ve got no right to wear my gun…I’m taking it back, boy…but first, I’m gonna kill that pig-banker’s daughter…and then…I’m gonna kill you…”
“P…Pa…” choked out Johnny.
He did not want to cry, but he felt that unwanted moisture stream from his eyes anyway. He did not want to be here, not here, not like this, but he did not have a choice.
“Time’s up, boy…” said the shadowy figure. “Die like the coward you are…”
The clock on the bank’s arch struck noon, and the chapel bell rang out in time.
The hostile man wreathed in shadow drew on Lillian, and a shot rang out in the dark, but Johnny did not feel any pain from that shot, at least, not the physical kind.
The shadow man staggered back a few steps before falling to his back.
Johnny’s eyes were wide and wild as he stared down at the smoking gun in his right hand. He had outdrawn his first adversary, outdrawn his own pa, and he had done it without thinking.
Light streamed down from the sky as the eclipse ended. It was subtle at first, a sliver of golden that shone past the passing moon, and then the sun was back to its blazing glory shortly thereafter.
The people of White Cross walked out of their buildings and homes to enter Main. They went about their business, ignorant or uncaring of the events that had just unfolded.
Johnny stared in openmouthed shock as the sheriff and his two deputies stood and walked on as if nothing had happened to them, as if they had not just been brutally murdered in the street.
He looked to the body of his pa, but the shadowy figure from the dark was gone, no trace of him, not even a speck of blood.
“Put that gun away, Johnny!” hissed Lillian.
Johnny quickly holstered his piece as the young lady dragged him away from the center of Main, dragging him toward the only place he currently needed to be, and that place was on the front porch of Cartwell’s General Store.
He did not know what had just happened, but he did know that things appeared to be normal again, and that was all that mattered. The first thing on his mind, however, was concern for the safety of Lillian.
He unstrapped his gun belt and set it aside as he addressed her. He needed to know if she was all right.
“Are you okay?” he asked her.
“Are you okay?” asked Lillian in return.
“I…I don’t know…” he stammered.
He really didn’t understand what had happened or what was going on, but he felt like maybe he had dreamed it all, a nightmare, but the young woman next to him confirmed the reality of what had just happened.
“What happened, Johnny?” asked the young lady. “Everyone is just going about their business like nothing happened. Even Sheriff Williams and the deputies are walking around like they weren’t even shot. I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either,” breathed out Johnny.
It hadn’t been his imagination. Lillian had seen it all. Lillian had seen everything that had happened. He wasn’t a madman after all.
He wiped his face clear of tears and shook his head in resolve. It wouldn’t do for a man to cry in front of a woman. He had a new goal in life anyway, a more positive one, one that didn’t involve killing…No, he’d lost his taste for killing…It did not suit him well, but that was nothing to cry about. He figured that to be a good thing. Besides, he had someone who was special to him in his life, though he had not realized that fact until just now.
“I know one thing,” he said in a shaky voice.
“What’s that?” asked Lillian.
“I don’t wanna be a deputy anymore,” said Johnny. “At least, not right now.”
“What?” asked Lillian.
“I think I’ll just work in the store for a while,” he replied. “I’m not sure I’m cut out for the law, but I’ll think on it…Besides…I…I want to be around just in case you need me. I cain’t do that if I’m off yonder wherever.”
“Oh…” said Lillian in surprise, but then that surprise turned into a wide smile upon her pretty face.
“That’s a good attitude to have, Mr. Tucker,” came the stern voice of Missionary Malach.
Johnny swallowed a gulp of saliva as he turned to look upon the tall and imposing clergyman. The man stood in the dirt of Main, his dark eyes locked upon Johnny and Lillian, but the expression upon his gaunt face was not so grim anymore.
Johnny’s first reaction was to stand in front of Lillian.
“What do you want, Mister?” he asked warily.
“Nothing, Mr. Tucker,” smiled the dark missionary. “It appears there is nothing more for me to teach you. You’ve conquered your darkness and fixed it to your feet where it belongs.”
“I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not,” frowned Johnny.
“It’s admiration,” smiled the tall and dark man.
He nodded toward Johnny’s shoes, and Johnny turned to look down toward his own two feet to see what the man was talking about, but he solved that mystery the moment he laid eyes upon it.
“Johnny, your shadow came back!” gasped Lillian in excitement.
“Well, I’ll be…” said Johnny, but he did not have time to think on this strange occurrence.
Johnny turned back to address Mr. Malach, but a group of young ladies passed by the missionary as the man in black stepped back to let them through.
Johnny recognized Mary O’Conner, Elizabeth Glenhouse, Belva Moore, and Dahlia Turnkey.
The tall redhead of the group, Mary, turned, smiled, and waved at Johnny.
“Hello, Johnny!” she said as the whole group of four walked up to him.
“Hello, Mary,” nodded Johnny.
The group of young ladies giggled as they walked past both Johnny and Lillian and entered the general store.
He turned to see the deep and unforgiving frown upon Lillian’s face directly after that, but he did not understand why she would be so out of sorts.
“Is somethin’ wrong?” he asked.
“It does not do well to wear your jealousy like a bonnet, young lady,” said Missionary Malach.
Lillian gave him a loud “Humph!” and shook her head no.
“I’m not jealous of some blacksmith’s daughter,” said the young lady. “Besides, she has her father’s ungainly hands and feet. Why would I be jealous of that?”
“We treat others with respect,” frowned the dark missionary. “For someone who speaks of respect, you do not show it.”
“I don’t have to respect her,” scowled Lillian. “She’s never shown any to me.”
“That is irrelevant,” said Malach as he shook his head no. “We treat others with respect, even if they do not show us the same in return. That is the path of the righteous. Furthermore, we trust in those we love because trust is the foundation of our love for one another.”
Johnny didn’t quite understand what was going on here, but he was pretty sure he wanted no part of it. Riling up Lillian was a bad idea anyway.
“Uh, Mister—” began Johnny, but he didn’t get to finish his warning.
“I am not jealous of Mary O’Conner,” spat Lillian. “But, I might add, there is nothing trustworthy about her. She’s nothing but a low-class peasant who talks above her station. She’s just as crude and as shifty as her father…No, I don’t trust that family at all. In fact, I think my father needs to have another look at the debt Mr. O’Connor owes him.”
Now this was getting out of hand.
“Uh, Lillian—” began Johnny again.
“Your prejudice and envy are as plain as the nose on your face, young lady,” frowned Missionary Malach. “You should study the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. You need to learn a lesson in humility.”
“You need to learn to mind your own business,” warned Lillian. “And if you don’t, I’m sure Sheriff Williams can show you to the edge of town. You can conduct your business there.”
The tall and gaunt man in black simply tipped his wide-brimmed black-felt boater hat and put forth a grim smile, but Johnny didn’t like that look at all.
“So be it,” said Missionary Malach in a firm tone. “Good day, Ms. Magner. Mr. Tucker.”
They watched him walk off after that, his path headed toward the White Cross chapel.
“Good riddance,” spat Lillian.
But Johnny didn’t like the idea of arguing with the strange missionary. He knew that man was more than what he appeared to be.
“Lillian, maybe we should just…” he started to say, but his voice trailed off as he noticed something very important.
“What?” asked Lillian, a slight irritation in her voice. “Why do you look so disturbed, Johnny Tucker?”
“Lillian…” said Johnny as he sucked in his breath. “You ain’t got no shadow!”
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