A Woman of the Wild West

“As he struggled into his boots, a crease lined the ravaged forehead of aging gunman Candy Dan. Kid Jack was the fresh type. No rules. No honor. Dan ambled into the dusty street. Kept the weight off his gout. The buzzing of flies. That tick. A faraway clock. Two hawks swooped overhead. Dan’s eyes locked onto the saloon door. “In the street, KidJack,” he shouted. “Now.” The crack of hot lead sliced through the cool breeze. Dan collapsed, face first. Shot in the back.”

The End.

Margaret Douglas mumbled, “Kid Jack,” and shook her head at the silliness of old Westerns. She switched off the television. Time for the youngsters, curled up together on the couch, to go to bed. 

Thomas had always been the more energetic of the twins and Margaret Douglas gave a sigh of relief as the sleepy contentment on his angelic face told her he’d finally drifted off. She tucked him in. His sister, younger by twenty-five minutes, purred like a kitten in the bottom bunk. 

In the bathroom she gazed at the forty-one-year-old in the mirror. Her skin had lost that porcelain like quality and she now had the complexion of a Styrofoam white coffee cup. The crow’s-feet were spreading from the corner of her eyes and slowly her weight had gone up a little more over every one of the eight years since the children were born. Donald would be away on business all weekend as he frequently was since they made him a partner at Vider inc. She adored their new two-story home and having pretty much exclusive access to the station wagon, but the neighbors had only received them by way of offering them a fruitcake and the limp handshake of middle-class stoicism. 

Alone in the living room, she flopped into the leather recliner and popped the olive from the empty martini glass into her mouth. For no apparent reason she began to reflect on her journey. She’d grown up the daughter of an architect, then dropped out of college and had a couple of years with flowers in her hair. That led to nothing, so she married Donald and busied herself fulfilling the inevitable role of homebuilder. It had all been oh so predictable. Behind her mask of contentment Margaret felt certain there had to be more to her life than this. 

She’d forgotten to close the curtains. Outside, she could just make out lights flashing in the sky over the chaos that came to town last month. In the Western suburbs—a different world—the new generation of young hippies had moved into Courthouse Square. Donald had warned her sooner or later the place would erupt and when she went shopping, he wanted her to avoid the square and mall next door to it. She was to do their shopping in Pioneer village. Stay local, stay safe. 

The kids were asleep. Boredom was turning her into a vegetable. She had nothing else to do. It would be better if the new babysitter were available to watch the children, but the girl she’d found online couldn’t start until tomorrow lunchtime when Margaret would as always spend Saturday afternoon playing bridge. The kids would be okay; the time had arrived for her to head out West and see what was happening for herself.

*

Margaret parked in the street parallel to Courthouse Square. It had something of a carnival atmosphere. Middle-aged beatnik types, twirling burning sticks and college kids letting off fireworks. A series of buskers plying their trade. One young man had a strange facial deformity, but it didn’t stop him juggling chainsaws. A pair of ratty-looking teenagers were planting vegetables in a small patch adjacent to the border. She told them they’d chosen the wrong vegetable to grow as the soil was too warm for tomatoes and they’d be better off waiting a couple of months. The cool nights, however, were ideal for spinach or cabbage. They mumbled, “Thanks,” but didn’t throw a glance her way.

Some of the revelers had a punkish appearance—Mohican hairdos and studded leather jackets—and looked like they could use a good meal, while others weren’t much different to the teenagers who lived on Margaret’s block. Knowing that in Courtyard Square no rules applied and people of all race and creed were mixing freely sparked an entirely foreign emotion in Margaret. She pulled the slide from her bun and allowed her graying locks to hang and freely gather around her shoulders. Lovely cool night air. She closed her eyes, drew in a crisp lungful, and twirled in circles, once, twice, again, and again. Was this the way the world was really meant to be? Everybody, regardless of who you were, where you came from or what you looked like together, mingling, dancing, living as one. 

All that spinning made her dizzy and she had to stop. Margaret strolled on feeling more and more at home until she realized she’d strayed into a faraway corner of the Square. Tucked away behind Madison’s Oak Tree, a large dome tent caught her eye. Silhouetted on the white nylon sheet, a row of seated shadows were loomed over by one imposing figure. A twitch of unease shot through her stomach, but she could sense herself being drawn towards the mysterious proceedings. 

Once inside the heavy atmosphere made her gulp, and she entered but kept her eyes down. Two scrawny young men stood chatting at the far end of the tent. When Margaret caught their eye, she looked away and glanced over the row of a half a dozen girls kneeling in the dirt. They ignored her; their attention fixed on the powerfully built speaker sporting a shaved head and a sharp red suit. He stood on a long wooden platform. Behind him were a line of youths each one of whom couldn’t have been more different in their appearance and stance. They could have been bikers, beatniks, students, or scroungers—one boy even looked almost half female. All present were unsmiling and clearly completely focused on the man in the red suit. 

She’d interrupted his speech. He pointed to the end of the row of girls. “Take your place.”

As she kneeled in the dirt Margaret knew she’d do anything he told her to do, anytime he said it.

She’d lived her life to carry a linen basket full of manufactured labels that she’d sewn to her dresses, dresses that never fit with labels like wife, mother, chair of the bridge club, woman—every one of them fake.

For the next twenty minutes or so he berated the row of ladies. For hundreds of years, they’d lived off the sweat of the servant, the toil of the immigrant, the blood of the working classes and the sacrifice of the downtrodden. He ordered them to empty their pockets of cash, throw it on the ground in front of them and to remove their clothes. 

The two scrawny men stood in front of Margaret, and another two behind her. She sensed the insipient rage of hysteria welling up inside. But just as quickly as it had risen, it fell, and a sense of calm overtook her. She threw a handful of notes onto the dirt and prepared to leave. A teenager with a bad case of acne, not helped by the fact that he clearly picked his pimples, placed a hand on her shoulder, riveted her with a steely glance and shook his head. 

“You want to stay, Mrs. You know you do.” 

Margaret experienced the most peculiar moment of her natural life. The materialism she’d sold her soul for, the privileges she’d taken for granted, the faces of the needy she’d turned from, all of it at once consumed her in a cloud of guilt. It was as if she were a charlatan who’d been found out and offered the chance for redemption. In robotic fashion one by one she did as the other females did and removed her garments. Her debt to the marginalized would be paid. She sank to her knees and settled her forehead onto the ground. The soil smelled fresh and earthy. She closed her eyes whilst all around her the sound of heavy breathing grew and grew. Somewhere deep inside a switch turned off all sense of awareness and her consciousness dissipated.

An unknown hand settled onto her shoulder and it was a shotgun blast going off in her head. She realized where she was and what she was doing, grabbed her clothes and charged out of the tent and into the night. Behind her the shrill burst of laughter rang out from the tent. 

Margaret did not stop crying for the entire drive home. 

*

“What on earth?” Margaret mumbled. A thief in the front garden.

“Excuse me young man, can I help you?” 

The teenager wore a denim shirt with a stylized yoke on the front, snap pockets, and fringes.

His black hair peeped out from under a beige cowboy hat pushed back on his head. He had the boots to match and his complexion was crisp. He smiled, approached Margaret, and observed, “What cool rhododendrons. My grandmother grows cabbages, spinach and yale.”

Margaret removed her glasses and raised one eyebrow. “No flowers?”

“You can’t eat flowers and she’s on the pension. If you have a vegetable patch out back you should try planting some kale. Give it an inch of water every week and…”

“Can I ask what you’re doing on our property?”

“Oh I’m sorry Mrs. Douglas. I’m Kid Jack. I’m friends with Aurelia. Your new babysitter? She couldn’t make it and asked me to fill in. I’m good with children.”

Margaret hesitated. “Are you?”

“I didn’t mean to be impertinent about the flower thing.”

Margaret examined his lean physique and contemplated his confident attitude. Did he really introduce himself as Kid Jack? Or was it only real in her head? He looked like the fresh type. No rules. No honor. 

“Come in, cowboy. There is something you can take a look at.”

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