waking up to an unwanted reality
Brian's story began long ago and far, far away...
The dirt road that served as Main Street was nearly empty of people now. Even the old hound that was a fixture in front of the town's general store had finally wandered back into town. He was sprawled out, occupying his usual place in the shade. That's when the door to the sheriff's office opened slowly, and the tall man in the black suit stepped outside.
As quiet as a moving shadow, he shut the wooden door behind him, his eyes darting quickly left, then right, then left again, reflecting hard-learned habits of a careful man. Satisfied there was nothing unusual to be seen, he relaxed slightly as he stood on the wooden sidewalk, looking north toward the stables and rail station at the far end of the street. It may have been the only street of this town, but it was his town. And after what had happened just a few hours earlier, it really was his town now.
Earlier that afternoon the daily supply train had whistled to a stop. Emerging out of the cloud of steam thrown up by the locomotive's huge wood-fired engine had come a huddle of Polish immigrants in decidedly European clothing; a balding conductor carrying a single, zippered-sack of mail; a tall, rail-thin porter pushing a cart filled with at least a dozen odd-sized boxes destined for the general store; and death.
Death stepped off the train that day in the form of Rustin Lewis and the Barker brothers, hard cases all. Each man carried a Colt .44 revolver, holstered low and tied down in the gunfighter way. The two brothers each wore belts of ammunition that crossed their chests and had an extra pistol stuffed in their belts. In addition to his sidearm, Lewis had brought his favorite killing weapon, a cut-down 12-gauge shotgun, both barrels loaded with buckshot, his pockets filled with extra ammunition.
They were there to kill the sheriff, the only man who had ever bested them.
A few years ago this sheriff had led a posse against them. For four days, until their trail played out and finally went stone cold, the posse had dogged these same bandits over rough, dry land. Finally, the posse had reluctantly given up and turned back to town—but not their sheriff. He had refused to give up and had gone on alone, at one point tracking the outlaws ahead of him over solid rock for the better part of a day. At dawn on his sixth day out of town, he surprised them, capturing all three men without having to fire a single shot.
A month later at their trial, the circuit judge who had traveled to town, sentenced each man in turn to four years of hard labor in the Yuma Territorial Prison. Hard labor. It had been all of that, all right. Four long, brutally hard years of breaking rocks and many of the prisoners' wills as well. Not for these three however. Every day in the scorching Arizona sun, as these three convicts slammed down a pick or shovel, they had seen that sheriff's face in the rock or rock-hard dirt before them. In the evenings as they huddled in their cells, they had dreamed and planned of nothing else than killing the one man most responsible for putting them behind bars. And after this man was dead, then they'd see to it that the two-bit town he guarded would die along with him—payment for their sending a posse out after them in the first place.
But first things first. According to their plan, the dying would start with that tall lawman with the steady, slate-grey eyes.
As the sheriff stood on the sidewalk, thumbs looped over his gun-belt, the town looked normal now. Gone was the fear that had spread through the townspeople like a sudden rush of bone-chilling water sheeting over them when they saw the three killers walking slowly toward the sheriff's office. Everything looked so peaceful now. In fact, were it not for the numerous bullet holes and broken glass in several buildings and storefronts around him, most already covered with plywood, and the three large dark spots on the street in front of him, it would have looked like a typical end to a typical day.
But it hadn't been a typical day.
Those three dark spots marked where three of the "baddest-of-bad men" had died trying to kill him, each man's lifeblood seeping out to stain the dirt in the street. He had stood his ground that day and done what he had to do, even though a pair of holes in his hat and the grazing wound on his right arm still stung and burned, reminding him of just how close he had come to death.
As he was reliving the dramatic fight that filled the street with thunder, lead, and three dead men's bodies, suddenly the sheriff's head jerked to his left. Voices were calling out his name. The tension inside him from rewinding the showdown in his mind instantly melted. An audible sigh, a smile, and then a flood of warmth came over him; for the voices belonged to a tall, strapping boy and a fair-haired young girl.
His daughter got to him first, running ahead of her brother and mother, jumping right up into her father's strong arms. After hugging her close, he set down his daughter as his wife and son walked up to him. He put an arm around his son, looking warmly at the young man who looked so much like he had as a youth. Then the sheriff turned to look at his wife and found her eyes full of tears.
The tears poured from beautiful blue eyes. They spoke not of sadness but of an immense relief as she reached out and hugged her husband, burying her head in his wide shoulder. Sobs of relief, mixed with heart-swelling pride, showed on her face as she pushed herself back and looked up at her husband. And then she kissed him hard, right there on the sidewalk in front of the kids and the townsfolk who had stopped to look at this impromptu family reunion.
She had reason to be proud of him. He alone had faced up to those killers. He alone had done what had to be done to secure their family's future and the future of their town. With a heart full of love and admiration, she said to her husband,...
"Sir, sir, you need to wake up, sir."
Sir? Somehow the words didn't seem right.
As he opened his eyes, it was a woman's voice talking to him all right, but it wasn't his wife's voice. As Brian shook his head, he finally began to realize where he was and who he was. He'd been dreaming of course. He wasn't a hickory-tough, six-foot-two-inch sheriff, standing surrounded by his loving family after a high noon standoff. He was just Brian. A middle-aged, exhausted, out-of-shape, barely five-foot-eight-inch salesman. And he wasn't standing on a wooden sidewalk. He was sitting, squeezed into a window seat in row 32 of a packed, thirty-three-row aircraft.
The woman who had spoken to him was a flight attendant about the same age as his son, and she hadn't gone away like the woman in his dreams.
"Sir," she said, "can I ask you please to put your tray table up and pull your seat forward for me?" she said condescendingly. "Thank you."
Then, as if in afterthought she felt she needed to explain her reason for waking him up, she leaned back and mentioned, "The captain has told us that we're probably going to hit some turbulence coming into Denver, with the rain and all." She turned and moved up the aisle to continue her passenger checks.
Brian nodded his head and began to move to comply with her instructions. That meant picking up the thin paperback western novel and half-eaten bag of chips lying on the small tray table in front of him. After putting up his tray table, he looked down and brushed the crumbs off his more than middle-aged stomach. Finally, after a struggle, he got the seat belt fastened around him, wondering again if it was time to get one of those seat-belt extensions he'd seen a few other people use.
The whole time he did this, Brian ignored the person in the middle seat beside him, as was his custom. As alone as he could be in a row in coach, shared with two other oversized men, he turned to look out the tiny window beside him, trying to see any lights down below.
Just clouds. He thought to himself. Rain and turbulence.
Then the thought came to him, Looks like my life.
And indeed it did.