Matthew and I stood on the long boardwalk. My gaze wandered over the ancient, natural wonder of the waves rolling in. The great waters of the ocean would still exist without me after I breathed my last breath. Life would go on. In time, even my memory would fade along with the wilting flowers that my loved ones would place at my grave.
I started at Caleb’s loud, mocking call. He wore an ecstatic expression.
“Aw, you look so glum, fairy boy.”
“This must be a glorious day for you,” I scoffed.
“On the contrary. I feel the same as I would discarding a half-dead rat caught in my cellar. It’s just a necessary task that I must complete.”
Matthew stepped in front of me as Caleb loaded his weapon.
Caleb snickered. “No need to be so protective, Matty boy. We will all play by the rules here.”
Matthew shook his head before turning to me. “My friend. I do not know what to say now. I should have protected you better. I stayed behind to help you, but all I did was make the situation worse.”
“This summer has been an adventure that I was able to spend with you once more. That makes me happy.”
My solemn voice and misty eyes did nothing to strengthen my lie. Even as I was moments away from the grave that I have long thought about, my sadness deepened.
Matthew handed me his father’s loaded pistol.
“Matthew,” I pleaded. “Please, find Jeremy for me. Finish the graveyard for them. Please, publish my stories. And Sarah’s stories. Publish her stories first.”
His face twisted in an obvious attempt to stop himself from crying.
“Of course. You have my word, old boy.”
I took a deep breath and faced my rival.
“Aim for his heart,” Matthew whispered.
I nodded, but I had no intention of doing so. My time had come and I was ready.
“Stand back to back, gentlemen,” ordered the saloon owner, Mr. Brown.
With our backs touching, Caleb’s warmth felt like a disease slowly making its way through my clothing. It seemed to seep into my skin. I cast my gaze upon the townsmen I attended summer fairs and church with when I was a child. By the looks of things, they were just as hungry for my death as Caleb was.
“Now, walk twenty paces, starting now.”
One. Two. Three.
I walked past Matthew and our eyes glued together. He gave me an encouraging smile, but his eyes were grievous and watery. I flashed him a nervous grin. I wanted him to remember me attempting to be brave.
Eight. Nine. Ten.
I drank in the sight of the water; I breathed in its intoxicating, salty scent. For so long I had hoped to die by my own hand, but I would die by the hand of another instead. I wondered if my life’s purpose was meant to end on Sunny Harbor. I thought about God and I questioned if he approved of my work.
Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty.
I was almost certain that my heart would burst from my chest as I stood on shaking legs about to be shot at.
“Face your opponent!” shouted Mr. Brown.
I spun on my heels to face my enemy, refusing to look at his face. My focus rested just past him on the slowly receding sun. It would be the last thing I would see.
“Aim your pistols, and on my call, you will fire your shots. Ready, aim…”
A shadowy, feminine form moved behind Caleb. I blinked. I was seeing illusions or a spirit coming to take me away.
“Stop!” screamed a woman.
Caleb turned away, roared, and stormed toward the woman.
“Sarah?” I called.
Her stance was so unrecognizable that I questioned whether it was her. I broke into a run. Matthew caught up with me and pulled be backward.
Sarah jumped onto a boulder. From what I could see, she was holding a gun. A shotgun.
Caleb stood below her, appearing to be dumfounded. His pistol dangled from his loose grip.
“Are you insane, woman?” he shouted.
That was when her stormy eyes met mine for a moment.
Matthew elbowed me hard.
“Shoot him, Alfred. Or I will.”
Time stilled as Sarah stared down the barrel of her Winchester Model 1887 at Caleb. Even her dark hair was disturbed as it blew wildly behind her against the peaceful sunset.
My hand felt weightless as Matthew pulled the pistol from it. He rushed ahead of me. Before I could blink, a loud boom and a plume of smoke sent time into rapid progression.
Caleb turned to face Matthew with flaming eyes. “Rule breakers die, Matty boy!”
A growing red circle of blood stained Caleb’s white shirt. He aimed his gun at Matthew, who reloaded with shaking hands.
“Caleb, stop!” Sarah cried.
“Shoot him, Sarah!” yelled Matthew.
I wanted to move, but panic set my body like a useless tin soldier. Caleb fired his shot and a bullet whistled past Matthew’s head. Mr. Brown made his way into my peripheral vision. He stalked toward Matthew with his gun pointed at him.
Rage boiled from the pit of my stomach and exploded with a scream. My legs broke away from their hold and I ran for the attacker. Startled to see me coming at him, Mr. Brown dropped his gun-bearing hand for a split second. A following gunshot thundered in my ears as I threw myself into the heavier man. We tumbled to the ground together.
Caleb’s shout of defeat told me that he had been shot by Matthew again. Mr. Brown’s fist crashed into my forehead. I kicked him in the guts as a familiar throbbing pain invaded my head. Cold, hard metal intensified the ache as he brought the point of his gun to my temple. He snickered like a demon before he froze. Warm, sticky blood splattered into my eyes. Grunting, I rolled over and wiped my face.
“Al, are you all right?” asked Sarah.
Through my swimming sight, I made out her statuesque form standing over me.
“You shot Mr. Brown” I asked.
I glanced over at the bad shape of the man’s chest.
“Come on, we have to run!” called Matthew.
I stood and allowed my gaze to wander over the wounded forms of Caleb and Mr. Brown.
“Mrs. Thomas has horses waiting for us in the woods,” said Sarah. “Follow me.”
We ran after her. Her brawn amazed me as she sprinted ahead with her long gun in hand. We jogged through the long grass away from the direction of the town. We reached a meadow of wild flowers and at the edge of it, a light signaled hope to us in the waning light.
“There’s Mrs. Thomas,” said Sarah. “Now, my shotgun is loaded. I will stand watch for a few minutes while you two run.”
“There is no way I am running ahead while you wait back here risking your life,” I said.
“I am a decent shot,” said Matthew. “Let me stay behind with both guns while you two run.”
“I am the better shot,” said Sarah, shaking her head. “This is my plan and I want to stand watch.”
Matthew gave me a weary shrug.
“I am not leaving you,” I said.
Her eyes flashed with passion. “There are at least two other men over there about to shoot at us. You are unarmed. Please, run.”
I shook my head. “Not a chance.”
A haunting rumble rolled over the field. A bullet raced between Sarah and me. Three men appeared from the protection of the brush and ran toward us.
“Get down,” said Sarah.
She and Matthew fired their guns simultaneously. One man fell, while another doubled over, leaving one uninjured shooter coming for us. I lowered myself into the grass. I deserved death because of my cowardice. I could have grabbed Mr. Brown’s free gun rather than flee the scene empty handed.
“I am the world’s worst fool,” I groaned.
Two more gunshots cracked the silence.
“Argh!” Matthew barked.
My heart nearly stopped at the sight of his fresh, bleeding wound.
“Just grazed my shoulder.”
He reloaded as he shook the air with his curses. After loading another bullet, Sarah fired another shot into the chest of the closest approaching gunman.
“Get down, Sarah!” Matthew barked. “I am going to take down the final bastard.”
Matthew and our last standing enemy shot at one another. Matthew missed another injury, but the other man dropped to his knees in shock after being hit; his gaping wound seemed to glow red.
“Do you not find all of this too simple?” asked Matthew. “We should not have survived this.”
“You did not just try to make a joke out of this, did you?” gasped Sarah.
Only Matthew would make light of nearly being killed.
“It would have been much simpler if I had a gun as well,” I muttered.
“We need to run,” demanded Sarah.
I ran over to the closest fallen man to retrieve his gun.
“Al, what the hell are you doing?” called Matthew.
Caleb’s wounded friend did not even bother to move as I picked up his dropped weapon. He rested there, suffering at my feet, and a part of me longed to send for a doctor, but there was no time.
“Al!” Sarah and Matthew called.
I caught up with them. We could all see the lantern that Mrs. Thomas was holding for us. In minutes, we would be riding away. Sarah would be safe from Caleb. She could write again in peace.
Two thunderous bangs brought me to a halt. I spiraled around. She stood about fifty feet behind before she suddenly fell to her side into the long grass.
I ran for her, not ready to believe what was happening. Once I reached her, I could feel my heart tearing apart. Below, she lay curled in a fetal position. Blood soaked the front of her dress.
I dropped next to her and removed my shirt. I placed the fabric over her wound and pressed down while a loud orchestra of somber music played in my head. It was not supposed to happen this way. I was supposed to save her.
Her mouth curved into a slight smile. Even then, her gothic aura teased me.
“You are going to be all right, Sarah,” I said.
I stroked her hair, drinking in her beautiful, brave face.
“The man fell after he shot me,” she wheezed. “I got him in the heart, I think. You are both safe.”
She spoke without opening her eyes. How I needed to see their light.
“I am proud of you, Sarah.”
“You’re proud of me?” she whispered.
“Yes. Very proud.”
Matthew collapsed into the sweeping grass with us. He helped me apply pressure on her wound. With his jaw firmly set, he wouldn’t look at me.
“Stay with us, Sarah,” he murmured.
I tapped him and, at last, his look of resignation told me what I could not believe.
“Forgive me for not protecting you,” I said.
I squeezed her shoulder as though the motion would somehow inject more life into her.
“Forgive you? There was never anything to forgive. You see, all I longed for was an adventure.”
“Please, fight, Sarah!” I begged her.
“I’m tired. Tell me a sad story, Alfred.”
“Please. A sad one.”
“I do not want you to be sad,” I said, caressing her cooling cheek.
I swallowed past the pain that coated my throat. I took a deep breath as I searched my tormented mind for any morsel of creativity. Matthew watched me in silent tears.
“There was once a little girl who was born to be queen, but the peasants and the commoners of the city burned her castle to the ground. They gathered all of the royals into a room to perish along with the old palace…”
“That was terrible,” said Matthew.
We all laughed. Sarah choked up blood.
“I wrote a sad story once,” she panted, still smiling.
I held her hand and her weakening, slender fingers laced into mine. Then her hand went limp.
I lay next to her, watching her face for any sign of life. Her eyes opened for a final whisper of time. Those dove grey eyes sliced into the deepest part of my being before they fluttered shut forever.
“She only fell asleep,” I said. “We need to take her to the hospital.”
“She is gone,” Matthew said faintly. “I am very sorry.”
“No. No, she can’t be gone!”
Matthew placed a hand on my shoulder and I swatted it away. Coldness reached at me from her still, lifeless face. Then fiery hell encircled me before oozing into every possible orifice. I wrapped my arms around her, burying my face into her soft hair, but the fire that ate away at my chest only intensified as I held her limp little body.
I crawled away from her and screamed.