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Monday, February 13, 2012

An Unlikely Hero


            In the ragged, hot summer of 1934, Tommy Brayfield sweltered in a cheap hotel room with his one true friend, a Smith & Wesson six shot,.38 Special, with a mother of pearl handle.  The window was open and a thin curtain chased a wisp of breeze in and out and carried away the smoke from the Chesterfield that hung off his lip.  Being skinny and missing breakfast didn’t stop him from sweating as he caressed the steel barrel with an oiled rag.  The gun was not a plaything.  It was his life, and he cared for it like it was something alive.  In a way it was.  Tommy carried it for a specific reason.  Sure, he could have gone bigger, or fancier, but the .38 caliber Special was what most police carried, and most soldiers.  Very common.  Hard to trace.   His stomach growled.He’d eat later, after the job was done.  “Steak,” he muttered aloud, “Rare and a full glass of whisky.”  His Adam’s apple bounced without touching the loose, white, but stained shirt collar. The collar was frayed in places.  It mirrored Tommy’s life.  But Tommy wasn’t much for introspection.  Still, he had his pride and especially pride in his work of killing people.  You gave him a job and the job got done.  Most of the time it was simple.  Money changed hands. You came, you shot, you left.           
          If it hadn’t been for that dumb bastard passing him on the street last night at the very moment, the very damn moment, he’d be back in Chicago now, with a full belly and a woman, instead of sweating like a two bit nag in this hick town.  He’d had a chance to do the job and he’d been ready to do it.  Shit, he should have just shot the mark and walked away.  Surprise and speed were the keys. Didn’t matter where and it didn’t matter when.  Chances are that other dumb bastard wouldn’t have gotten a look at him anyway.  This time he’d do it right. But last night still flickered and teased.  It ain’t all that tough, offing a rich husband.  Bam!  Sure thing.  Payday.  Not like that scary shit of driving into a hick town and knocking over a bank.  Dillinger and the boys could have that all to themselves; he’d stick with what he did best.            
          The daily paper rustled a little on the bed.  Headlines read, “Unknowns Rob Madison City Bank.” Tommy glanced at it and shook his head.  “Scary shit,” he said under his breath.
          Mr. Brady strolled into the Police Station, touched his hat and growled a terse good morning to Sara Jane, the Chief’s secretary.  She looked up from her typing.           
          “Chief Collins in?”  He rocked back on his heels, put one hand on his prosperous stomach, then moved his hand up and twisted the end of his waxed mustache. His eyes wandered to strategic places.
          Sara Jane ignored the glances and parried,   “How’s Mrs. Brady?”                                 
          “Fine,” was the terse reply, flavored with a hint of a scowl.             
          The private office was behind a big door, half of it frosted glass.  Curved black letters read, “Elmer G. Collins” and under that a straight line, “Chief of Police.”            
          The Chief got up when Brady walked in.  Big smile and a handshake.  Collins waved him to a hardback wooden chair and sat back down behind his desk.  “What’s on your mind?”           
          “It’s not just my mind, Elmer.  As you know, I’m President of the Merchants’ Association.” There was an imperial, monotone to Brady’s voice that grated, like shaving with a dull razor.  Maybe it was the way his judgmental eyes flicked around the room and the impatient way he shifted in his chair, as though nobody else’s time was quite as valuable.            
          “I surely do know that, and I also know you’re doing a fine job.”  Collins spoke up to cut him off before Brady could begin his usual pontification.            
          “Well,” Brady began again, “We’re coming up on another election.”           
          Another veiled threat, Chief Collins thought, but he didn’t say anything, just pursed his lips and bridged his fingers.           
          “As I was saying, you’ve been a good Chief.”           
          “But,” Collins said.            
          “Well, there’s been some banks robbed and some members of the Association have been getting a little nervous.  You know, robbing a bank is one thing, but scaring off customers is something else.  And, Madison City is less than three hours away.”            
          “Your wallet starting to feel a little thin?”             
          “It’s not the business....” His eyes darted around the room.  “But, they only robbed the Madison Bank a couple of days ago.”            
          “What is it exactly you want me to do?”           
          “We were thinking maybe you could increase the police patrols downtown.”            
          “Horace, I’ve got three men and myself.  All of us are downtown all day, unless something happens that calls us away.”            
          “Exactly, my point.  What if you get called away?”            
          “We’re never called very far or for very long.  My authority ends at the city limit.”            
          The arrogant tone again.  “We really need some protection for the citizens.”            
          Sometimes it’s easier to give an inch.  “Look, I’ll tell you what; until this business with bank robberies calms down, I’ll walk the streets myself.  We can stretch the patrols to a couple hours after dark.”            
          “We were thinking that maybe you should deputize some of the citizens.  Let them sit up in the attics around town.  Maybe let them carry rifles.”            
          Collins wanted to roll his eyes.  He refrained.  Brady might be a little short on courage and long on talk, but the Association all but ruled the town when it came to turning out the vote and paying the bills.  “I don’t like the idea of untrained men with rifles.”
             Miles away, Jackson, Billy, and Fred sat in a barn with an old Ford parked outside.  Jackson was counting, moving the bills into three piles.  “Looks like it’s gonna come out to four hun’ard apiece.”                     
          “Four hun’ard?”  Billy was incredulous.  “I could piss four hun’ard dollars worth of beer.”
          “Yeah,” Fred growled, “You was sayin’ lots before.”  Fred had problems with large numbers, so hundreds probably confused him.                            
          “I know what I was saying,” Jackson replied, trying to keep the edge off his voice, “But four hun’ard apiece is what we got!”  His pitch rose a little in spite of himself.  He shoved back from the table.  “You count it!”  It was a safe bet.  Neither Fred nor Billy could count past ten without taking off their shoes.            
          The conversation went back and forth, with nobody doing anything but complaining, until finally Jackson said, “Look, you want more money, you’re gonna have to rob another bank.”  It got real silent.                          
          “Where?”  Fred asked, unblinking. 
          “There’s a little town ‘bout three hours from Madison,” Jackson said.            
          “Whooowee!”  Billy pulled the silver revolver that was stuffed down his britches and rolled the cylinder.  “Whooowee!  Now you’re talkin’!”            
          Yeah, Jackson thought, now I’m talking, you cretin, but I'm talking to two useful idiots who are going to get me killed.  Billy forgot being upset about the lack of money from the last robbery and went back to grinning and polishing his gun.  The way he waved it around, somebody was going to get hurt.  With any kind of luck, it would be Billy.            
          Fred wasn’t the loose, gunslinger Billy was, but he didn’t test positive for intelligence either.  Periodically, Jackson thought of ditching the both of them, but right now, like them, he was broke.  Four hundred dollars wouldn’t last two months, then he’d be right where he started.  Broke.  He’d make this one last run with the two imbeciles and then cut himself loose.
          It was the Chief’s shift, around noon, while the other men took a nap, or ate lunch, and the sun turned the whole town into a skillet.  A thin layer of dust covered everything like tan ash, including the blades of grass around the courthouse.  Still, he liked the idea of getting out of the office and strolling.  A little sweat was good for the soul. At least he’d been able to convince that fool Brady not to have him turn Main Street into a shooting gallery.              
          The Chief was walking toward the bank, glancing back at Mr. Brady who was standing in front of his store.  He saw a man come out of the hotel and walk toward Brady, a skinny stranger, one hand on a bulge in his coat pocket.  His first thought was that Brady had out foxed him; hired his own guns to patrol the town.   Almost simultaneously, a car swerved around the corner and drove right between the Chief and the stranger.  It screeched to a dusty halt in front of the bank and three armed men jumped out, one of them waving a silver revolver.  Two made for the front door of the bank. Silver Gun stayed in the street. They had hats pulled down tight, the brims shadowing their faces.            
          Sweet kingdom of God, Chief Collins thought as he whirled to face the guy in the street, dropped to one knee, and tugged unsuccessfully at the pistol in his black leather holster.  Being out in the middle of the street in a policeman’s uniform suddenly made him as uncomfortable as a Baptist in a brewery.  “I’m a dead man,” is what he said out loud.  Nobody was listening.            
          Tommy Brayfield strolled out of the hotel and headed toward Brady’s Department Store with murderous intent.  The sun shone in his eyes, but he could make out the rotund figure of Mr. Brady standing in front.  Got the bastard now, he thought, and put his hand on the gun hidden under his coat.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chief Collins.  Shit, he said to himself.  Another needless complication to what should have been over yesterday.            
          Then a car swerved toward him, kicking up enough dust for a rodeo.  The car stopped in a squeal of tires and the next thing he knew, a guy was pointing a gun at him from a distance of about ten yards.  He drew his weapon and sent Billy a chest high shot that shattered ribs and ruptured several major vessels.  Billy pulled at the spreading stain on his chest and wheezed, trying to draw a breath that wouldn’t come.  He fired the silver revolver on his way to the ground, but his depth of vision wasn’t any longer than his lifespan.  The bullet went array, striking Mr. Brady exactly between his beady eyes, dropping him faster than nightfall in December.            
          Tommy Brayfield wheeled around toward Brady and took a few steps, but made the grievous error of swinging his gun in the direction of Chief Collins. The chief had heard the pops from behind the car.  Then several more shots from in front.  Now that skinny stranger stepped into view and was pointing a gun at him.  Who the hell could tell what was going on?  It was like a wild west show in the middle of his quiet little town and here he was rolling around like a dog in a sandbox.  With all the effort and grace of an etherized man trying to escape from a dentist’s chair, he freed his pistol and fired off a few rounds in the general direction of the melee.  He saw a man go down. Between the dust and the heat and the sweat, and having bullets whizzing by, it was all a jerky, blurry movie.  Although he didn’t know it, one of his bullets shattered Tommy Brayfield’s femur and the femoral artery.  Another ricocheted off the street and smashed a store window, scarring hell out of 77-year-old Gertrude Timble, who was in the process of buying blue yarn, but now wet her pants and fainted. The whole thing lasted maybe two minutes, until two men raced out of the bank, screaming at each other and ignoring Billy’s body that lay sprawled in the street. The car sped away. The Chief fired another shot, and had no idea where it went, but nobody fell dead.   The dust settled.  The streets were quiet again.  Three men lay bloody and unmoving in the dust, Brady, Billy, and some poor son-of-a-bitch who’d been walking his dog.
         The town mourned the loss of the President of the Merchant’s Association and most of all the death of the skinny stranger who it was said had killed one of the bank robbers and sent the other two running.  Some of the merchants said the Chief of Police must have taken Brady’s advice and hired an extra gun.  The Chief didn’t deny it.  The newspaper found out the stranger’s name and where he was from.  With Mrs. Brady’s overly enthusiastic blessing, a citizens’ committee collected money to have a statue put up that showed him pointing his pistol and selected an inscription that read, “I may be a stranger, but I come as a friend.”  Some called him a guardian angel.  Chief Collins gave another inch and didn’t disagree.

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