A Six Gun and the Queen of Light

Part 2

A Six Gun and the Queen of Light

By Mark Slade

Story Break Barbed

Jim Fagan didn’t like to sleep. He avoided it as much as possible. That’s why he went to the witch woman out by the swamps. She would fix him a powder that could keep him awake for weeks. That would enable Fagan more time to play his stick game. The stick game was Chinese, brought over to America – and this game had helped ruin his life.

The game consisted of six bamboo sticks and a spinning top. You hold the bamboo sticks, all numbered, while your opponent holds the spinning top, ready to pull the string. When you toss the sticks in the air, he pulls the string and the spinning top spins till it levitates. The sticks fall randomly, picking numbers that match in a row to the numbers the top picks when the metal sides open. The numbers appear in the air, then quickly disappear.

Fagan won just one game – his first. A secret was whispered to him. After that, he was obsessed.

Fagan was a store owner at one time. Dry goods and cattle feed. It was a good business. He had a good marriage to May. May had been a distant cousin, and they had met at an uncle’s wedding. Soon they started corresponding. Fagan sent for May once they had made their feelings known to each other through the letters. They were married the next week. It didn’t take long at all for them to try to conceive a child. That was number one on May’s list to accomplish. They were still trying when tragedy befell them.

He met Horace Favor. Favor was passing through Bedlam. He was out checking the railroad’s progress for ‘Myers and Sons’. One late night, he introduced Fagan to the game. After one game, Fagan was hooked. The rules were complicated, but winning just one game was always within his grasp. The two of them would end up spending whole nights playing against an old Chinese man with a long goatee and long white hair. His fingernails, too, were long and were always wrapped around a pipe filled with an opiate not familiar in any opium dens in the railroad camps.

When Fagan would stumble home in the mornings, May let him know she wasn’t pleased with him. The arguments ensued throughout the day’s work – keeping the store running – customers being town folk and cowhands, not understanding what a man had been up all night – sometimes two nights in a row. That afternoon, Fagan was punched out by Daniel Rowe for mentioning the hump on Rowe’s back. May wouldn’t speak to him for a week. Things went downhill from there for Fagan.

His business suffered when a rival Swede moved into town and set up a store across the street. Pretty soon, not even a drunk stumbled into Fagan’s store to beg for an old bottle of scuttle hooch. Scuttle hooch was corn whiskey made with rainwater, and eventually, Fagan began to drink it to cope with his bad luck through recent events in his life and bad luck in the game.

But winning just one game became an obsession. They lost their house, their business. Fagan and May had to move into the town hotel, amid onlookers, to hear laughter at their backs. May was sinking deeper into a depression and Fagan ignored it. She put on a brave face – all smiles. She never left the hotel room, felt even lonelier than when Fagan found a job as a stable jockey. After high shift, he’d come home with a bottle of rye they would share and a plate of vittles from Smokey’s bar that included deer elk and greasy carrots. Later, Fagan would slip out while May was pretending to be asleep and gamble the last two dollars of the week’s wage.

May was all set to leave Fagan. She wanted to start all over in Minnesota. Fagan found he had a way and the right words to keep May, promising that once he wins another game he would quit. Every time he played, he was almost there… that one win. In the final moment of the game, the old Chinese man would win again. When Fagan would come home, May would be in bed – waiting for him to lay beside her, give her body his touch. She would ask, “Did you win?”

Fagan would undress in silence. Then he would climb in bed. “No,” he said, curling his long, gangly arms around her warm body. May would sigh, and the tears would roll down her cheeks as she sobbed quietly.

In the morning, Fagan found May lying beside him, the sheets covered in blood. Her wrists had been cut – his razor in her hand. The expression on her face was one of pure ecstasy – glad to be out of the situation she was in. Fagan stumbled out of their hotel room, ran down the street, screaming May was dead.

That night, Fagan went to see the old Chinese man.

“Another game..?” the old Chinese man asked. He was sitting on a tree stump in front of his tent by the railroad. A fire burned bright, red-orange embers floated past them.

“I want to die,” Fagan said weakly.

“I don’t believe that.” The old Chinese man sniffed the air. “I understand your pain, my friend. To die would do her an injustice.”

Fagan closed his eyes. He tried hard not to let the tears start again. It was a fight he was doomed to lose every time he thought of May. “It’s all my fault… ”

“The wind can carry the past if you let it. If not, it becomes a constant dark cloud looming above.”

“Words… just… words… I need something… to kill the pain,” Fagan told him. He fell to his knees and began sobbing.

“You wish to play the game?” said the old Chinese man smiling. Blackened, broken teeth protruded above his bottom lip. He showed Fagan the bamboo sticks and spinning top. Fagan’s hand trembled. Yes. He wanted to play the game.

His mind became cloudy, all thoughts turned to that secret about the crops he planted a year ago. The crops the spinning top told him would grow if he planted them pointing east. Then there was the vision of May lying in their bed, blood dripping from her limp wrist, razor in her hand.

Fagan took a pistol from his belt, aimed it at the old Chinese man. “No…” His voice faltered. “I’m going to kill you so you can never play this Devil game again with some other poor soul.”

The old Chinese man shrugged. “It matters little. The stick game is everywhere the Chinese are. We are where the railroad is… and we are in Bedlam. Kill me if you wish. I think you want a game.”

Fagan squeezed the trigger and the pistol screamed thunder and lightning from its barrel. The bullet struck the old Chinese man in his chest, killing him instantly. It was more of an accident than on purpose, and if anyone found Fagan out, that’s what he’d tell ’em.

He wanted to make it look like a robbery. So Fagan went through the Chinese man’s things. He found thirteen dollars and decided to make it an actual robbery. He placed the paper bills in his pocket – continued tossing things around until he found a bottle of elixir. He opened the bottle of light-brown liquid. It smelt like rotten eggs. He thought, What the hell, the booze would help bury the memory of May.

It burned as it went down his throat. His mind clouded over again. He felt dizzy and passed out. He awoke and noticed he was in a room with several people. A saloon girl named Betty was on the lap of a cowhand named Goya. He spoke Spanish to her and she giggled. Another cowhand burst through the doors of the saloon and shot both of them.

The saloon faded – as did the people. Fagan came to and found himself where he last stood, where the dead Chinese man lay with a bullet in his chest. At sunrise, Fagan rode into town. He hitched up his horse and went directly into Smokey’s saloon. He ordered a beer and a whiskey. He felt hot breath on his neck. He turned and saw Goya behind him. Goya looked confused – worried.

“You… you were there?” He touched the brim of his beat-up hat. “Please… tell me… how did you get into my dream?”

“I–” Fagan couldn’t find the right words. He drank down the beer, then the whiskey. He looked at the Mexican, shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, friend.”

Goya smiled, nodded. “Yes. It was all my dream – nothing real.” He smacked Fagan on the back, whooped happily. Goya went back to the corner table and pulled Betty on his lap. She giggled. A cowhand burst through the doors and shot Betty and Goya. The cowhand walked out like nothing had happened.

Later that night, after drinking away all the money Fagan had stolen from the old Chinese man, he found a ditch behind Doc Abrams’ place to lounge in – call home.