Occasional Prose

Dead Owls (a short story)

The remnant of the evening’s candle flickered and dripped wax onto the table. The scarce lighting only accented the worried looks of Otto and Minerva Steiner, currently tied tightly to their own kitchen chairs by tattered rope. Handkerchiefs covered their mouths in a similarly taut fashion. They did not scream as the outlaw tied them up. They only looked at him and at each other with unbridled intensity.

“I bet you’re wonderin’ ’bout now, Why are we’s tied up in arr own home?” The outlaw produced a pistol from the belt on his hip. He took turns pointing the barrel in Otto and Minerva’s faces. “Well, I reckon I’ll give you’s an answer.”

They could hardly see the man strut around the main room of the two-room shack. The color of his clothes absorbed any faint light that made its way to his figure. Only the occasional reflection from his equally dark eyes gave indication of where he treaded, and only the clinking of his spurs told them for certain if he was on their right or left.

“You two stole this here land from me. I’m here to rectify that infraction.” He grabbed something in the dark and threw it on the ground. “The question remains: what will you pay me to ease the pain you’s caused me?”

Otto made no noise. Minerva adjusted herself in her chair as best she could but silence followed.

“I will take the gag away. Who’s is goin’ to talk?” The outlaw came back over and sat at a third chair. “Mornin’ is comin’. I’d hate to leave things as they are between us. I saw a Bible over der. Looked like they spelled it wrong. Called it a B I B E L. You’s a religious man, squarehead? I ‘member somethin’ about thou ain’t supposed to steal and thou shouldn’t kill. You ‘member those? I reckon if there’s a God, He’d be alright wit’ me shootin’ you and the frau, don’t you think? An eye for eye, I vaguely ‘member. I never gave much of a hoot about it, but I think that there’s mighty pretty.”

The outlaw pulled Otto’s handkerchief down.

“My old rifle,” Otto panted. “You can have that.”

The outlaw pointed his pistol at Otto’s temple and pulled the hammer back. “I seem to have a gun already.”

“It is expensive. Sell it in town. Take whatever you want from here but leave us be.”

He chuckled and started to laugh a little louder with each passing second. Minerva struggled to speak with the handkerchief around her mouth so Otto intervened. “I will ask you to keep your voice down.”

He stopped laughing and stared at Otto for a moment, deciding to hit him over the head with the grip. “I don’t think you call the shots here. I’ll hit your old lady next.” Minerva was quiet but trying to touch Otto’s foot with her own. The outlaw grabbed Otto and loudly scooted the chair across the wooden floor to prevent this, but stopped when he heard shuffling nearby.

“Shh,” Otto said.

“What was that?”

“Never mind that. I have some money in town. The bank will open at sunrise. You and I could head out soon. You could escape with a clear conscience.”

“You really want me to hit your wife, don’t you squarehead?”

“I would not like that at all. I don’t know you. Tell me. You seem like you don’t want anything but blood. Tell me what you want,” Otto attempted to reason with him.

“I done told you: I want the land back. It ain’t my fault they sent me to Leavenworth. You think you can just take a man’s land while he’s away?”

“I bought this land from the undertaker. He said it was his land. Had a deed. It’s around here somewhere.”

The outlaw smiled a crooked smile. “There’s part of your problem: you think I give a damn about any of that. I’m thinking that I might just kill you both for the sport of it. What can you give me that worth takin’?”

“I offered the rifle. I offered you money. Would you like the horse? It is my livelihood, but I could part with him. Livelihood would not mean much without a life, no?”

“Ah, but I have a horse. You’s runnin’ out of options fast. And look! The sun’s already risin’!” The outlaw stood up and walked over to the burning candle. A short wick remained along with a waxy mess. “Squarehead, I can honestly say that you Steiners are between a rock and a hard place. I need retribution.”

“Reparation,” Otto calmly said.

The outlaw looked at Otto and smirked. In equally calm fashion, he replied, “I spoke correctly.” Lifting his pistol, he took aim at Otto’s head. Minerva objected with grunts behind the handkerchief, obviously annoyed with the outlaw. “Maybe we should ask the frau what she’s thinkin’.” He lowered his gun, walked over to Minerva, and pulled the handkerchief down.

“You don’t seem to want anything. Hurt us if you want. I don’t care. But don’t you raise your voice or make a ruckus.” The sun peaked through the window in the small, two room shack. The outlaw could see by the look illuminated on her face that she was serious.

“I had hoped you would be reasonable,” he jested.

“I am,” she countered.

“Please don’t make loud noises, sir,” Otto chimed in. “We’ll get you whatever you want, but please don’t make loud noises.”

“What is there to take? This place is shit. I couldn’t give a hoot about any of it. And I’m about sick of you, squarehead.” He fired the pistol above Otto’s head and cackled. Otto and Minerva looked around, frightened, but both kept their composure. Neither screamed. But in that short time, the shuffling noise came from the other room again. This time, the cry of a child followed, echoing through the two-room shack.

“Ooh,” the outlaw realized. “I’m sure the marshal will appreciate a third body. Maybe the undertaker can resell the land too!”

“Is that your plan?” Otto asked.

“Please let me tend to the child,” Minerva pleaded.

“You think I have a plan?” the outlaw said, rotating the gun’s chamber.

The child’s scream grew louder.

“I will be quick,” Minerva continued, desperate.

“Please untie my wife,” Otto said. “I won’t ask again.”

“Shut up, squarehead!”

The child would not be comforted by his mother’s voice in the other room. The outlaw started toward the room with the same strut he entered the house with. It could, and would, only end one way.

But Otto threw himself onto the ground, shattering the wooden chair and loosing the tattered bonds around him. He made a beeline to his old rifle across the room. The outlaw saw it and took another shot. He missed.

Minerva lifted herself up just enough to move the chair. She scrambled into the outlaw to make him stumble, but not enough to tackle him. This gave Otto enough time to level the rifle’s barrel, aiming it right at his chest. “Step away from my family,” he growled, the warm demeanor gone.

The outlaw stepped toward the doorway to exit but the rifle never lost sight of him. Otto walked over to Minerva and untied her, holding the rifle steady in one hand. She rushed into the other room to comfort the child.

The outlaw smiled nervously at Otto. There was a visible bruise on his head where the outlaw had hit him, and a trail of blood in case he forgot that. “You know,” the outlaw said. “I never did like this place much. Why don’t you’s keep it and I’ll be on my way?”

“I built this house with my two hands,” Otto said. He looked over at Minerva and the baby she held in her arms. “I’d make anywhere home with those two.”

“I have no home,” the outlaw said.

“Is that so?” Otto asked. “What happened?”

“I only have–“

The butt of Otto’s rifle caught him right in the jaw.

“Tell it to the marshal,” Otto said. “I don’t give a hoot.”

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