Category Archives: Stories

Booth’s Revenge Introduction

Author’s note: This is the sequel to my historical novel Lincoln in the Basement which I recently finished serializing on this blog. I would like to point out the title, Booth’s Revenge, does not imply that he was in the right to seek revenge, just that he took revenge.
A little known American myth* alleges Secretary of War Edwin Stanton became so disillusioned with the way President Abraham Lincoln was handling the Civil War in the fall of 1862, following a summer of disastrous Union defeats, he decided to kidnap Lincoln and his wife and hold them under guard in the White House basement. Diverse historians pieced the story together from reports of interviews with surviving participants of the bizarre ordeal.
Stanton found a deserter in the Old Capitol Prison to impersonate Lincoln and an imprisoned Confederate spy to impersonate Lincoln’s wife. After intensive research, historians identified the man as Duff Read of Michigan who was sentenced to hang and the woman as Alethia Haliday of Bladensburg, Md., who was convicted of trying to sneak an escape plan into prison to notorious spy Rose Greenhow. After the war, Smithsonian Institution officials requested Old Capitol Prison to turn over its records for historical preservation. Mysteriously they discovered pages missing during September of 1862. Careful study revealed that Duff and Miss Haliday were admitted to the prison in early 1862 but no records noted when they were removed. When the Smithsonian delegation confronted Prison Superintendent William Woods about the missing records, he refused to comment. After museum researchers went to the hometowns of the missing prisoners, they found evidence the couple indeed bore striking resemblances to the Lincolns and that no one ever saw either one after the war.
Stanton chose Private Adam Christy to guard over the Lincolns and tend to their daily needs. Christy, by coincidence, came from Stanton’s hometown of Steubenville, Ohio. Rumors began to circulate throughout Steubenville after the end of the war that Christy did not die at the Second Battle of Manassas as reported in official War Department documents. Christy’s father swore to the day he died that Secretary Stanton had assigned his son to duties at the White House.
At the turn of the twentieth century, relatives of poet Walt Whitman found among his papers a curious story about a half-witted janitor in the White House named Gabby Zook. According to the story, Zook stumbled into the basement to discover the kidnapping. The story also claimed that Stanton forced Zook to join the Lincolns for the next two and a half years. Literary circles dismissed the story at the time as poetic expression of the feeling of confinement all Americans underwent during the war.
The questionable Whitman papers also alleged Stanton often went to the basement for advice from Lincoln because his own policies were not working as expected. Zook told Whitman of an incident in which the guard Christy became so distressed by his role in the conspiracy that in a rage he killed an unnamed White House butler. Zook insisted Stanton and one of his henchmen disposed of the body. Some historians speculate the henchman was Secret Service officer Lafayette Baker.
By the end of the war, the secretary faced the dilemma of what to do with two Lincolns. No one knows exactly what happened to the Lincoln impersonators. According to the Whitman account, Zook believed Stanton blackmailed Christy with the butler’s murder, forcing Christy to find assassins to kill the real Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, Secretary of War William Seward and Vice-President Andrew Johnson. Conventional history identified the presidential assassin to be John Wilkes Booth.
Zook confided in Whitman that Lincoln in the final days of the war had succumbed to extreme melancholia. He did not interact with his wife and Zook in the basement room nor did he eat. On the last day, Zook described Lincoln’s emotional state as one heading to the gallows, unable to control his own destiny.
Grandchildren of President Andrew Johnson told friends in Greeneville, Tennessee, that Johnson revealed on his deathbed that he discovered the kidnapping plot and the eventual assassination of Lincoln at the hands of Stanton. That discovery led Johnson to fire Stanton in 1867, provoking Congress to impeach Johnson. The Senate failed by one vote to remove Johnson from office.
To this day, no one knows what happened to the other participants in the plot.
*This report is absolutely true because I made up the myth myself in 1988.

David, Wallis and the Mercenary Chapter Seventy-Five

Previously: Mercenary Leon fails on a mission because of David, better known as the Prince of Wales. Socialite Wallis Spencer, also a spy, has an affair with German Joachim Von Ribbentrop and marries Ernest. David becomes king. Wallis divorces, David abdicates and they marry. The Windsors escape oncoming Nazis. Leon shadows their every move. Leon dies.
Sidney Johnson’s day was the same as every other day of his life in the last few years. He worked on Jinglepocket’s fishing boat. He liked the spray of the brisk salt water in his face. Jinglepockets commented regularly about how Sidney’s body was growing stronger and how soon Sidney would be working harder than he did.
“You may be only seventeen years old,” the old fisherman said, “but you put in a better day’s work than men twice your age.”
The compliment only made Sidney work harder, which gave him more coins to jingle in his own pockets.
He knew his mother would have a good supper waiting for him and afterwards he would go to his room to read the books his father brought back from his many travels. Sidney learned about history, mathematics, business principles, proper English, a smattering of other languages like Spanish and French. He memorized whole passages from guides on self-defense. He knew how to be aware of his surroundings, to heighten his reflexes so no one could catch him off-guard. Most crucial part of his studies was the art of killing his enemy quickly and silently.
This education led him to do the same job his father did. Leon had revealed in bits and pieces over the years to Sidney that he worked for a secret organization which often needed his expertise in stealing valuable items and killing people.
“Were they bad people?” Sidney asked.
“I don’t like to use words like good or bad,” his father replied with due deliberation.” If someone is good or bad must always be determined by the person who’s trying to fill his family’s bellies.”
Sidney did not know if he entirely believed what his father said, but he worshiped his father, and it would take great thought to reject anything he said.
Walking down the sandy lane from the pier to his house, he saw Pooka come up to the gated wall around his large home. It looked out of place in the neighborhood of fishing shacks. They had this house because his father killed people for a living. Nagging guilt kept him from feeling any sense of pride. His mother opened the gate to let Pooka enter. A churning in his gut made him break out in a trot. When he reached the gate he heard his mother scream.
“No! You lie! Leon said you were evil, and he was right!”
Sidney ran to his mother’s side and put his arm around her, murmuring loving words in her ear. He knew very well his father’s feelings about the high priestess of Obeah, a religion that mixed Christianity with Caribbean superstitions
“I have friends in Lisbon,” Pooka continued, “who sent me about a newspaper article.” She extended it to her. “Read it for yourself.”
Sidney took it. His mother’s eyes were already filled with tears. The headline was, “Windsors Sail for Freeport.” He scanned the article until he reached near the bottom of the story.
“As the crowds dispersed from the pier they found a black man lying on his face. He was dressed as a Portuguese peasant.” He read in a soft respectful voice. “Police authorities reported finding a bullet wound in his back. He was dead. Police found a key to a nearby hotel in his pocket. When they investigated the hotel room, they found a passport belonging to—“Sidney stopped, not wanting to say the name.
“Go on,” Jessamine ordered. “Read it all.”
“Leon Johnson,” Sidney continued. “An investigation revealed Johnson had been observed in surveillance of the home where the Windsors were staying. The police concluded Johnson was responsible for the attack on the house earlier in the week.”
“Your husband is dead, Jessamine. I tried to protect him through the years with the powers of Obeah, which he repeatedly rejected—with scorn.” Pooka raised her chin in pride. “Now will you believe me? Will you now follow me in the belief of Obeah?”
Jessamine stared at her. “You say friends in Lisbon sent this to you.”
“Yes.”
“You have lived on this island all your life.” Jessamine’s words were calculated. “How could you ever have friends in Lisbon?”
“Obeah.” The smugness faded from Pooka’s face. “I have friends around the world because of Obeah.”
“A little religion in the Caribbean has followers around the world?” Contempt licked each syllable Jessamine said.
“Your faith is weak.” Pooka’s eyes fluttered, out of control. “I can teach you to believe Obeah has believers around the world.”
Sidney watched his mother’s face turn crimson. He had never seen her so angry with Pooka. She had always had the highest regard for the priestess. He often overheard arguments between his parents about the high priestess. Jessamine promised Leon she would shun Pooka, but whenever he left on one of his long mysterious trips, she ran to the old woman for guidance and comfort. But no more.
“You leave my house.” Raging emotion clouded his mother’s voice. Not as a thunderstorm but as the black billowing clouds rolling in before the light and explosions. “And never come back.”
“You will come crawling back to me because you know I have the truth.” Pooka paused to look down her crooked nose at Jessamine and spit on the ground before going through the gate and turning down the road to her own hovel.
Jessamine wiped a few tears from her face, turned to Sidney to smile and put her arm around him. As they walked into the house, she whispered, “I have freshly caught grilled fish, rice and roasted vegetables, your father’s favorite meal. I had this feeling he would be coming home, and he did. He will never leave again. He lives in our hearts forever.”
Sidney thought this was a strange reaction, but much better than the screaming and rending of clothing he had often imagined would be her behavior when news came of his father’s death. Even though he doubted her sincerity, he did find it soothing.
As they sat at the table eating, Jessamine revealed her inner thoughts. “As you may remember, I never got along with your grandmother but I did love her and respect her. I want you to believe that.”
She paused. Sidney decided it was more discreet to say nothing at this point.
“I am carrying on as I know your grandmother would have. Your father would have wanted it that way.”
Sidney was relieved with his mother’s promise of stoic silence. He could feel his heart pounding. He needed blessed nothingness hanging over them like a sanctified blanket of comfort. It was not to be.
“Don’t worry about your future,” Jessamine continued. “Your father provided well for us. This house is ours. No one can ever take it away from us. It will be yours until the day you—well, are no longer here. You are faithful to old Jinglepockets. He loves you like a grandson. When he—well, is no longer here, his fishing business will be yours. Follow your father’s example. Find yourself a good woman—hopefully, a better woman than he found—and have many children. Be the example to your children like he was to you.”
Jessamine paused to look out the window at the setting sun. “You have three aunts. Just at the moment your grandmother Dorothy needed them most, they moved to Nausau to find husbands—well, they found men, instead. If they ever come to you asking for money, don’t give it to them. I know your father always said to fill the bellies of your family, but when your aunts turned away from Dorothy, they were no longer members of this family. Your father demanded it. Trust me. He told me so many times.”
Though he had never heard his father speak of his sisters, Sidney believed his mother. The command rang true with every other decree his father issued on matters of family.
“I appreciate your helping me clean the dishes every night,” Jessamine continued without emotion, “but I want you to get your rest so you can put in a hard day’s work on the fishing boat. You are the man of the family now. I will wash the dishes by myself tonight.”
Sidney stood, walked around the table and kissed his mother on the cheek. Without a word he climbed the stairs to his bedroom. But Sidney stopped and cocked his head. He did not hear the clanking of dishes in the sink. Instincts told him something was wrong. Leon had often commented about his son’s uncanny intuition and insisted he should always follow it. It would keep him alive. Sidney rushed from his room and bounded down the stairs. He glanced in the kitchen. His mother was not there. He ran outside, through the gate and around the house.
There he saw his mother walking with serene determination into the sea. Sidney began to chase after her, but Pooka came out of the shadows and wrapped her old arms around him.
“Sshh, this is what your mother wants,” she whispered.
“No!” He struggled to get away. “Mother! No!”
“Your mother lived for your father,” Pooka continued. “Would you make her suffer through life without him?”
Jessamine splashed through the waves and continued walking until she disappeared in the ocean. Sidney stopped struggling. It was too late.
“Do not worry.” Pooka released her hold on him. “I will guide you.”
Sidney lashed out, pushing her down into the sand. “Go away! My father hated you! My mother told you never to come back! I hate you! If I ever see your face again, I will kill you!”

A Word from the Author

I hope all of you are enjoying reading my stories. Just a reminder that I have a picture of my Storytelling Fund basket off to the side. If anyone would like to make a small contribution to defray the costs of the website I would be very grateful. Everyone have a happy summer!

David, Wallis and the Mercenary Chapter Seventy-One

Previously: Mercenary Leon fails on a mission because of David, better known as the Prince of Wales. Socialite Wallis Spencer, also a spy, has an affair with German Joachim Von Ribbentrop and marries Ernest. David becomes king. Wallis divorces, David abdicates and they marry. They fail to kill Hitler. David and Wallis volunteer to help France. Leon receives orders to go to France and says good-bye to his son.
The servants finished packing the limousine while the Windsors bid adieu to the staff. David embraced Monsieur Valat and whispered, “Take care. Thank you for helping Wallis with the recuperating soldiers. As soon as we leave dismiss the staff and lock the residence. I have informed the owner we are not renewing our lease. Then you and your son disappear into the hills. If you can, make it to Switzerland. As a former employee of an Allied officer and a volunteer at a convalescence hospital, you will be viewed with suspicion by the Germans.”
Wallis hugged Jean. “Thank you for saving my life.”
The sun was low in the sky. Valat looked around and frowned.
“Are you sure you do not want to wait until morning?”
“No,” David replied. “The trip to Barcelona will take twenty-four hours. It’s best if most of that time we are traveling in darkness.”
The Windsors pulled away in their car and drove down the winding driveway. After a couple of hours they stopped in Cannes for a supper. They had a salad and soup. Their anticipation of the long drive kept them from a larger meal. David pour the last of the wine into their glasses. After a sip, Wallis leaned in.
“Are you sure all these precautions are worth it?” Wallis asked. “If Joachim’s behavior the last time we saw him is any indication, the Germans have no idea we tried to kill Hitler.” She took out a cigarette and lit it.
“Two points, my dear. One, I’m not concerned about an assassination attempt on our lives. They want to kidnap us so we will be available to place on the throne if their air attacks on London are successful and the country falls. Two, the world must view us as escaping with our lives to keep up the pretense we are the mere abdication couple with no stomach for war.”
She blew smoke his way. “Since when did I give you permission to call me ‘dear’ in private?”
“Haven’t you noticed?” he smiled like an imp. “I always have.”
Amusement danced across her thin lips. “Oh really? You’re right. I hadn’t noticed.” She stood. “And now I have to go to the Johnny.”
“If you must.” David frowned. He didn’t understand why, but Wallis’s use of American slang irritated him. He looked out the window onto the dimly lit street. A motorcyclist sat at the curb staring at him. Normal people might not noticed such behavior, but as an experienced espionage agent David took in every detail.
Wallis returned. “You better go too, unless you want to pee in bushes.”
Damn her slang, David thought; however, what made it so aggravating was that she was right. She goaded him again when she slid in behind the wheel of the car.
“You need to get some sleep.” She turned the ignition. “It’s going to be a long night.”
After midnight, the roads begin to fill with villagers from Frejus, St. Maxine and St. Tropez. They were in a panicked march away from the oncoming German army. David and Wallis settled into a forbidding silence as the traffic crawled to a halt through larger towns like Toulon. At one point an ambulance blocked the road. Two men appeared to be changing all four tires. A woman, wearing a ragged coat stood by the side of the road holding a lantern up to the oncoming traffic. When they reached the woman, she shone the lantern in the car window and motioned them to the side.
“Now what can this be all about?” David muttered.
As soon as he cleared off the road and stopped, the woman limped over to them and opened the car door. She leaned in and whispered, “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been waiting all night for you.”
“Thank God it’s you. Now we can get some information.” Wallis grinned like a school girl.
“What do you have for us?” David asked.
“The Germans are moving faster than anticipated,” she began. “Our sources in Berlin say that Von Ribbentrop has taken all of your statements to the press and interpreted them to be your signal to Hitler that you are willing to become the new king once the British lose the war. That makes them even more eager to intercept you. The Spanish ambassador has assured your passage into Spain at Barcelona, but we think he will try to influence you once you arrive. They even have contingency plans to grab you in Portugal before you set sail.”
“Set sail for where?” David wrinkled his brow.
“How the hell would I know?” she retorted. “That’s between you and MI6.”
Wallis reached out to touch her hand. “I’m glad you’re on our side.”
“I’m on the side of France.” She withdrew into the darkness.
David took over the wheel, and Wallis snuggled in for a nap.
By dawn the Windsors entered Marseilles and realized the gas tank was on empty. The first two stations they passed were still closed which made them nervous. On the western end of the city they found a station just opening and filled the large limousine take, ensuring enough gasoline to reach the Spanish border. They found a small café, and ate a large breakfast. In a few miles the Windsors entered a more isolated countryside; however, the sky darkened with rain clouds. Soon a torrent began and continued most of the day, again slowing their progress. It was night before they knew it. The road narrowed as their car reached the Pyrenees Mountains. Refuges continued to crowd their escape.
A man pulling on a donkey with a child on its back stepped in front of David’s car. He swerved to keep from hitting them, but found himself in the mud unable to pull his car out. The more he gunned the engine the more entrenched it become. He put the car in neutral.
“We’ve got to get out and push,” he grumbled.
Without a word Wallis joined him. Ignoring the downpour, they put their shoulders to the rear bumper to no success. Behind them they heard a noise.
Allez, allez!” a high-pitched male voice called out.
A short man with broad shoulders rode up on his motorcycle and waved to others to join him. Without another word, the stranger and the volunteers he had recruited put their bodies again the car and pushed, eventually placing it back on the road. All the others scurried on their way. David grabbed the stranger’s hand to shake. He noticed the man had a heavy but worn coat, gloves and a knit cap pulled down over his ears.
“We can’t thank you enough.” David patted his back. “It’s as though you arrived by design.”
Pas de quoi.” The stranger laughed. “Indeed, it was by design.”
Wallis squinted at him. His features were obscured by the night. Instinctively she reached to pull off his cap, revealing a strong black face with penetrating eyes.
“You sound like you’re from the Bahamas,” she intoned. “Have we met before?”
“Yes, we have.”
“You saved my life on the Tanganyika Express,” she said in revelation.
“So, are you saying you have been following us?” David couldn’t understand.
“Well, this time just since Antibes.”
“Then why—“David tried to continue.
“You need to be in Barcelona as soon as possible.”
“Can we give you a ride?” David offered.
“I have my own transportation.” He pointed to his cycle. “And it is faster than yours.”
“Just who are you?” Wallis demanded. “Who do you work for?”
Before they could ask any more questions the stranger disappeared into the dark swerving in and out of the hordes of refugees. David remembered the cyclist who stared at them in the Cannes cafe. Knowing he had no time to reflect on the situation, he brushed the thought from his mind. David pushed Wallis to the driver’s side of the wheel.
“It’s your turn behind the wheel.”
They resumed their trek across the mountains to Perpignon where David once again began driving. Once they reached the border crossing, a crowd milled about, discontent murmurs floating around. David went to the Spanish entry office where the immigration clerk told him he had not received any message from the ambassador about the admittance of the former king of England. David tried to maintain his composure.
“You must understand, the German army has instructions to kidnap my wife and me. I am the former king of England.” Even as he said the words he knew they sounded ridiculous.
At that moment, there was a tap on the door to the Spanish side. The clerk opened it and a man stuck his arm in and grabbed the clerk to pull him outside. A moment later he returned. His face was beet red and his eyes wide in fear.
“I—I’m sorry for the delay. You are allowed to enter.”
As they drove across the border the Windsors saw the short man from the Bahamas on his motorcyle waving at them.
Por nada.”

Know Your ABCs

A I’m first. I’m number one.
B Better to be me (it rhymes).
C I’m like B. I rhyme too.
D Duh, I rhyme too.
E Even yet, I rhyme again.
F I don’t rhyme, and I don’t care.
G Gee, I rhyme and I’m proud.
H What the H. There ain’t nothing to rhyme.
I I stand alone and love it.
J I stand with A because we rhyme.
K I rhyme with A too.
L I don’t rhyme and I don’t care.
M Broad and muscled, I don’t have to rhyme.
N No, no, no.
O Oh, oh, oh.
P I’m in with B through E.
Q Do you expect me to give a darn?
R Really, do you expect me to care that Q doesn’t give a darn?
S SSS—just SSS
T Totally with B and the others.
U Guess what, Q? I rhyme with you.
V I’m in with the E rhymes.
W What you talking about rhymes?
X Exactly what I was talking about.
Y Why, I’m with I.
Z Wake me when you say something important. ZZZ

The Laugh

When the kids were young and mayhem reigned supreme in the house, I sometimes begged my wife to allow me to go camping by myself for a weekend for a little peace and quiet.
My favorite spot was out in the woods by the Withlacoochee River. My little pup tent took no time at all to set up and a quick trip among the trees provided enough wood and kindling for the fire. Sometimes I could hear other campers in the distance but most of the time I savored my solitude in the silence. It was about midnight several years ago that my contemplations were interrupted by several howls of laughter.
Looking about, I tried to determine where the noise was coming from. The laughter stopped, only to be followed by the crunching of leaves and twigs. I felt my heart in my throat. My mouth went dry. I cursed myself for not owning a gun even though I didn’t know how to use one. Maybe one of the larger logs in the fire would suffice as a weapon. I heard the laugh right behind me and jumped.
“What you all fidgety about, man?”
From the shadows ambled a bear of an old man with a long gray-streaked beard which I supposed had been dark amber when he was young. He had a limp which favored his left foot which looked like it had been mauled by something with sharp teeth. He plopped to the ground up across the fire from me and let out such a giggle-tinged grunt that I could no longer be afraid of him.
“Think there be skunk apes here about?” he asked more as a joke than a question.
“Well,” I replied, “I’ve never seen one.”
“Ever thunk they be ghosts of critters long gone? That’s how you folks can sometimes see them, but never catch one or see a track. Maybe they just love these old swamps and don’t want to go away.”
When he smiled, I noticed his teeth look like yellowed stalactites and stalagmites in a yawning cavern. His tongue darted out like a pink slime creature venturing from the abyss of his gullet.
“That’s an interesting theory.” I covered my mouth with my hand to keep him from seeing the flicker of a smile. “Have you ever seen a skunk ape?”
He let go with another cackling laugh. “You’d be surprised by what I’ve done and seen in these swamps.”
“Is that so?” I replied with my hand still across my lips. I began to think my kids weren’t so peculiar after all.
“You ain’t scared, are you, young fella? There ain’t no need to be.”
“That’s a relief.”
“I can tell you don’t believe in skunk apes, ghosts or nothin’ else that lurks about in the darkness.”
“I don’t mean any disrespect, sir, but, no, I don’t believe in skunk apes, ghosts or things that go bump in the night.”
“Then more fool you!” The old man threw back his head, howled in laughter for several moments before evaporating into the darkness.

Sorry

Everyone told me the best place to make out with your girlfriend was on Radio Hill Road.
“You got to see the lights of downtown from Radio Hill Road.” Use that line to persuade her. After about a minute and a half you slip your arm around her shoulder. This action should cause her to look from the lights and smile at you. Then go in for the kiss.
I knew the radio station was on Radio Hill Road but not much else; if you didn’t need to be on the radio, why bother to go out there? At 16-years-old, I had a high squeaky voice, and when I was nervous I tended to get loud. So, the night before my big date, I drove out there to familiarize myself with the best place to park. No lie, the view impressed me for a small town in Texas. I even practiced lowering my voice. That sounded creepy so I ditched the idea. Only a few second later, however, I saw a bright object in the sky, lingering over downtown. At first I dismissed it as an airplane, but this body had no extra blinking colored lights and seemed to linger before turning sharply and shooting directly over my car at a speed unattainable by any ordinary airliner.
Had I just encountered a space ship from another planet? Here I sat all alone on Radio Hill Road, and little green men knew it. I was ripe for the picking, just a laser beam away from being transported up for some exploratory surgery. Fumbling with my keys, I finally started my car and started down the hill when I passed a pair of headlights come in the opposite direction.
“Ahh!!” I screamed like a little girl. No. A little girl could not be that loud.
“What the hell’s wrong with you, kid?”
This teen-aged boy’s eyes widened, startled by my outburst. The girl sitting next to him began giggling. I felt bad that I had broken their mood. No necking for them tonight. Not only was I afraid of what I had seen in the sky, I also feared the story of my scream would be all over school on Monday morning. At the intersection of Radio Hill Road and the county highway heading back toward town, I stopped to gain my composure. I could never tell anyone about this. Everyone in school thought I was weird enough already without this new incident. Maybe the couple in the other car didn’t recognize me. After all, it was dark.
Tap, tap. A noise drew my attention to the car window. A little green man snapped his long skinny fingers which caused my window all by itself. I screamed again. This was it, I thought. I was the object of an alien’s next science experiment. Maybe it was all for the best. My social life at high school was over.
“Pardon me, young human.” A surprisingly deep voice came from a slit in the green head. “I didn’t mean to make you scream. Could you please direct me to the nearest United States of America Air Force Base? I’m meeting with your leader tomorrow morning, and I’m lost.”

The Hunt for Sam Bass’s Gold

Hogg Nubbins had been a cowpoke for most near all his life. He wasn’t much good for anything else. He couldn’t read or write, not that he was interested in reading anything that would give him ideas. If he could write he wouldn’t know what to put on the paper. Hogg had just one goal in life: to find Sam Bass’s gold.
Riding up and down the Chisholm Trail in Texas all he ever heard was the Ballad of Sam Bass. Other cowpokes said the song was written to lull the cows into walking the same direction and to keep the cowboys from falling asleep. It was quite a yarn, that Ballad of Sam Bass.
Sam had one hell of a life, yessiree. Born in Indiana, he came to Texas as a young man, filled with piss and vinegar, and set out to make himself some money. This was all in the song. The guys on the trail filled in facts left out because the songwriter ran out of notes. Sam and his buddies started robbing trains and banks all the way from Central Texas to the Dakotas and points in between. One time they robbed a train, beat a man to a pulp before the guy gave up and opened the safe.
“Sixty thousand dollars,” old Pete, the chuck wagon boss, said. Pete was a youngin’ when they finally shot Sam to death at Round Rock, Texas, so he should know. “All in mint twenty dollar gold coins. The biggest train robbery ever.”
The ballad said Sam was like some kind of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, being loyal to his friends and all.
“The only poor people Sam ever gave money to was bartenders and whores,” Pete snorted.
“The whole sixty thousand dollars to bartenders and whores?” Hogg asked, his mouth falling open.
“Oh hell, there ain’t enough whores in Texas to spend sixty thousand dollars on,” Pete replied. He doused the campfire, and that was the end of the story.
The next morning on the trail the cowpokes around Hogg started singing the Ballad of Sam Bass again. He went back to thinking about that sixty thousand dollars. Damn, he thought, if he had that much money he might buy himself some of those fancy false teeth he heard talked about. Hogg didn’t have a tooth in his head. They had all rotted out by the time he was thirty.
That night as he gummed his chili and corn pone Hogg asked Pete, “Well, if Sam Bass didn’t spend all sixty thousand dollars on whores what do you think he done with it?”
“He hid it,” Burly piped up. Burly was almost as old as Pete, but he was still spry enough to ride a horse and herd cattle. “That’s what I always heard.”
“Where?” Hogg was getting excited now. If somebody can hide a bunch of gold coins then somebody else can find them.
“Sam’s last words were, ‘I bet those folks in Cooke County will be huntin’ a long time for that gold.’ So it must be in Cooke County,” Burly said.
“Where’s Cooke County?” Hogg asked.
“Aww, that’s bullshit,” Pete said as he spooned out the last of the chili. “Sam’s last words was ‘The world is bobbing around me.’ And I had fellers who was right there when he died tell me that.”
“It ain’t no bullshit at all,” Burly shot back. Pete and Burly hated each other for years. Some said they once fought over a woman. Others said they were just a couple of sonovabitches that couldn’t get along. “It didn’t have to be the absolute last thing Sam said. Hell, it took him a full day to die after they shot him. He probably said a lot of things before he actually died.”
“I still say bullshit.” Pete looked at the cowpokes around the fire. “Anybody want the last cornpone?”
“Now where is this Cooke County?” Hogg asked again. He figured he could spend the gold coins on whores just like Sam did.
“Everybody that got a lick of sense knows that Sam Bass hung out in Cooke County as much as he hung out anyplace else in Texas,” Burly continued in a loud defiant voice. “I know for a fact Sam and his gang hid out in Cove Holler. That’s in the southwest corner of Cooke County, and hardly nobody lives there.”
“Only a idiot would hide out in Cove Holler. It’s so thick with oak and walnut trees and vines and brush the sun can’t shine through at noon day,” Pete countered.
“Well, nobody said Sam was the brightest man around,” Burly replied sullenly. “And the holler is all riddled with limestone caves, just the place to hide a bundle of gold coins.”
“Where is this Cooke County?” Hogg asked for the third time. If anybody could find Sam Bass’s gold, Hogg knew he was the man to do it.
“Hogg, you must be the dumbest sonovabitch I ever done seen. Cooke County is three counties due west of here.” Pete doused the campfire, and the conversation ended right there.
When Hogg mounted up the next morning he kept looking due west toward Cooke County and then at the cattle. He had been herding cattle all these years, and what had it ever got him? A calloused ass and a wallet full of nothing. All he had to do is ride west and keep asking folks along the way where this Cooke County was.
“Hogg! Get movin’! We gotta get across the Red River by night fall!” Burly shouted.
Hogg looked west and then at the cattle one last time, and then he lit out full gallop heading west. The gallop eventually became a trot, and he started laying out his plan to find Sam Bass’s gold. He didn’t want to be none too eager to talk about it, Hogg told himself. When he stopped for the night he ought to be real casual about his conversations with folks. Didn’t want nobody to know what he was up to. That Cove Holler seemed to be the place to look, all right. After a couple of days he found himself in Gainesville, the Cooke County seat. He settled into a chair at the local boarding house dining room. Hogg tried to start up a conversation.
“Nice little town you got here.”
“Wouldn’t know. I’m just passin’ through.” The man had on a fine suit of clothes and had his hair slicked down with something that smelled mighty sweet.
“Then you wouldn’t know about Cove Holler.”
“Everyone in North Texas knows about Cove Hollow,” the man replied with a sniff. “The worst land in the whole territory. Not worth a dime.”
“That’s what I heard too,” Hogg said. “Lots of underbrush and limestone caves. Sounds like a place you wanna to keep away from. Just where is it so I can go in the opposite direction?” Hogg thought he was being very clever.
The fancy dude with the perfumed hair gave him perfect directions—southwest of Gainesville along a long ravine. The nearest ranch was miles away.
When he woke up the next day Hogg checked out of the boarding house and went southwest until he found the beginning of the ravine. When he couldn’t ride any further into the thick underbrush Hogg tied up his horse. The prickly bushes and vines surrounded by oak and walnut trees made walking slow going. He didn’t know exactly where he was or how he would find his way out. All he knew was that he was on the hunt for Sam Bass’s gold.
Soon the foliage thickened so the sun was completely blocked. Only mottled areas of dim light appeared here and there. Hogg squinted from side to side and saw hints of limestone caves in the distance. Suddenly his foot slipped and he fell straight down. At the bottom of the hole Hogg took a moment to regain his senses. He must have fallen into one of them limestone caves. There was so little light he had to wait until his eyes adjust a bit. Then he began to reach his hands out to touch something. Mostly limestone. Smooth, moist limestone. Then he felt something else. Leather. Hogg eagerly grabbed at it. A leather bag. No, two leather bags. No, more than that.
Hogg clumsily clawed at the belt tying one of the leather bags shut. Opening it he frantically stuck his fingers inside. He felt coins, lots of coins. Hogg pulled them out of the bag and peered at them. They were gold coins. Twenty dollar gold coins. And they still looked as new and sparkly as the day Sam Bass took them off the train.
Laughing loudly he quickly opened the other leather bags. They were all filled with gold coins. Enough gold coins to get him some good false teeth and all the whores he’d ever want.
“Glory hallelujah!” Hogg shouted. He looked up. “I found …” Hogg stopped as he stared at the steep slippery limestone shaft above him. He finished in a whimper, “…Sam Bass’s gold.”

Two Pennies

Two weeks ago Frank’s breakfast buddies suggested over their omelets that they all go to the opening of a ballroom dancing school. Anyone showing proof of being on Social Security got in free.
Before Frank could respond, a woman in a flamboyant caftan and large dangling earrings entered the restaurant and immediately stopped in front of Frank and pointed.
“Are you married?”
“No.” He unconsciously reached for the gold band on his left hand.
Without another word she walked away, disappearing in the crowd.
“That was weird,” Charley observed. “As I was saying, let’s have a guys’ night out where we get to touch some old broads without getting slapped. What do you say, Frank?”
“I don’t know,” he demurred. “I have two left feet, and Joan had two right feet so it seemed to work out okay. But me with a woman with two normal feet, well, that could prove embarrassing.”
“Look, you’ll probably never see any of these women again, so why do you care?” Charley asked.
“You guys are overlooking the main word in this conversation,” Ralph interjected. “Free. We can’t break the old fart’s creed. Never pass up anything free.”
So on the night of the opening Frank dressed, not really knowing what to think. He heard Charley honk. The time to think was over. It was time to go. The dance school was in an old car repair garage. Frank had gone there a few times until he realized there was a cheaper garage down the street. The parking lot was full. It was amazing how many people come out for something free.
Just as he stepped out of Charley’s car he looked down and saw a shiny penny on the ground. Legend had it when a person found a shiny penny someone who had died was letting them know everything was all right. His wife Joan wanted him to have a good time. Frank didn’t know if he believed in such things, but just for tonight he decided he wanted to, so he picked up the penny and put it in his pocket.
The old garage looked pretty good now. The grease on the floor had been cleaned up and replaced by wooden tiles. The whole place was painted black and mirrors covered every wall. A mirror ball twirled above, radiating twinkling lights everywhere, making everyone in attendance look twenty years younger.
Frank stopped in his tracks when he saw the woman in the middle of the room holding a microphone. She was slender and straight, wearing a white beaded jacket and black beaded short dress and looked just like Anne Bancroft. For the first time in years, Frank felt he was developing a crush on the woman who glittered like the Milky Way.
“I need a partner to show how easy dancing is,” she announced in a wonderful accent.
Frank couldn’t tell if she were Spanish or Italian. Either way, shivers went up and down his spine.
She pointed in his direction. “I choose you, the cute one. You know who you are.” Walking over to him, she took his hand and led him back to the center. “You handsome men, you always play hard to get.” She smiled. “Have you ever danced?”
“Not in a long time. I’m afraid I was never any good,” he whispered.
She patted his cheek. “And he’s shy too. Isn’t that adorable?”
Frank noticed her red fingernail polish matched her lipstick. Inhaling her perfume, he tried not to faint.
“Don’t be scared. We’ll start out easy. A waltz.”
Seemingly out of nowhere, the music began. Frank could hear the three-quarter time distinctly and moved his feet accordingly. The glittering woman melded into him and with her legs led him around the dance floor, creating the illusion that he knew what he was doing. He knew the tune well enough to know it was about over. He was relieved he had not embarrassed him, yet he had to admit he didn’t want to let her go.
“Dip me,” she whispered.
Now dipping was something Frank knew how to do. It was his favorite cheap trick and his wife Joan loved it. He moved his left hand up to support her head and the right went to the small of her back—which he noticed was, indeed, very small. Then he gently bent her backwards and smiled. What he wasn’t expecting was that she planted a kiss on his lips. They immediately came back up, and the crowd applauded with enthusiasm.
“Ladies, ladies,” the woman in sequins announced. “You must dance with this man! He is very strong!”
The next two hours were both pleasurable and frustrating. Frank ended up dancing with every old woman in the house, each one wanting to be dipped. On the other hand, Frank kept an eye on the dance instructor and try as he may, he was not able to get close to her for a return performance. His buddies patted him on the back.
“I didn’t know you had it in you,” Charley said.
“When she kissed you I thought you were going down for the count,” Ralph added.
The three of them had almost decided to put out the dough for a month’s lessons when the glittery woman took the microphone back to the center of the dance floor.
“Thank you all so much for attending the grand opening of my ballroom dance school. Enrollment forms are on the table by the door. But most of all, I want to thank my husband. After he retired he agreed to turn his auto repair shop into this beautiful ballroom. David, please come out and take a bow.”
A tall, bald fat man lumbered out wearing black slacks and an oversized black shirt. She practically jumped into his arms, landing a big, long kiss. How she found his lips through that bushy beard, Frank would never figure out.
“Tough luck, pal,” Charley muttered.
“Yeah, let’s get the hell out of here,” Ralph added.
Frank was about to climb into the backseat of Charley’s car when he looked down and saw another penny which he swore was in the same place of the penny he picked up going in. But this one was dirty and smudged. Joan was trying to tell him something. Maybe like even though the evening didn’t turn out the way he wanted, she’d always be with him. Or something like that.
Frank left the dirty penny on the ground.

The Future Me

When I awoke this morning I was confused. Looking down at me was my mother. She’s been dead for fifty years, but there she was, looking as young and beautiful as I remembered from my childhood.
“And how is Jerry this morning?” she asked.
I was so dumbfounded. I could not find the words to respond. This bald man came up, put his arm around my mother’s shoulder and smiled.
“Look, Daddy, Jerry is wide awake and ready for breakfast.”
Okay, this man was not my father. My father was not bald and he rarely if ever smiled. Mother picked me up and handed me to this man she called Daddy. How this guy could hold me I could not figure out. I was a two hundred pound old man. For that matter how could my mother pick me up? And when I was the size for my father to carry, he never did. At least I did not remember him carrying me. There was something terribly wrong about this situation. They were calling me Jerry and that was my name. The woman looked very much like my mother. And this man was a complete stranger.
“Bring Jerry in here, Anthony,” the woman called out from the kitchen.
Now I was really confused. My father’s name was Grady. And I never knew anyone named Anthony until my daughter started dating. My daughter, where was she? For that matter, where was my wife? And why was I peeing in my pants? I hadn’t peed in my pants in more than sixty years.
“I’ve got to change his diaper first, Heather,” this man trying to pass himself off as my father said. My real father never changed a diaper in his life.
I wrinkled my tiny brow. He called my mother Heather. My mother’s name was Florida. My daughter’s name was Heather. All this confusion made me very unhappy. The only thing I could think to do was cry.
“Why is the baby crying?” Heather called out from the kitchen.
“If your pants were wet you’d cry too,” this man who called himself Anthony said.
After he changed my diaper, I began to feel hungry. Bacon and eggs would taste good, I thought. Maybe not. I now could not rightly remember what bacon and eggs tasted like. I had bad dreams all the time. My wife could usually tell me what they meant, but at this moment I could not remember her name. I did remember how good that bottle of milk tasted. My father—whatever his actual name was—was pretty good slipping it between my little lips.
I decided he was not so bad. I looked at my mother and knew I had loved her a long time, way back in a past that was fading away and into a future that was brand new yet so familiar. Maybe even better.
Author’s note: This is, of course, sort of a fantasy. I already have a grandson named Liam.