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The Ghost and Billy Martin
About the Author: John M. Floyd’s work has appeared in more than 350 different publications, including AHMM, EQMM, Strand Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and four editions of Otto Penzler’s best-mysteries-of-the-year anthologies. John is an Edgar finalist, a Shamus Award winner, a five-time Derringer Award winner, a Golden Derringer Award winner, a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and the author of nine books.

“I saw something,” I said, standing up. “There—outside the window.”

The two other people in the one-room cabin, my ma and the man with the gun, turned to look at me. It was the first time I’d said a word in the half hour since he’d arrived. When they then looked at the window, nothing was out there except the cloudy late-morning sky.

But something in my face must’ve made a difference. The man—he’d told us his name was Murphy, which I doubted, and that his limp was from a wound at Gettysburg, which I sort of believed—rose from his chair, his revolver still pointed at us. Carefully he opened the door and peeked through the crack. I waited, holding my breath. Then he picked up his rifle and stepped outside.

This was my chance. I dashed across the room to the woodbox my pa had made just before he died and took out his big Colt. I knew it was fully loaded; I’d shot a snake with it just last week and reloaded afterward. I had turned to aim it at the open doorway when I saw my ma shake her head urgently and hold out her open hand. Half disappointed and half relieved, I ran back to her, handed it over, and sat where I’d been before, beside her at the wooden table. She tucked the gun away in the folds of her dress just as Murphy appeared again at the door, his .44 revolver in one hand and his Winchester in the other. Beyond him, the clouds seemed to be thinning. The sun was shining through.

“Nothing out there, boy,” he said to me. “I think I got you nervous, is all.” He closed the door, leaned his rifle against the wall beside it, and with that same hand barred the door shut. His handgun was still out and pointed in our direction when he took his seat again in the room’s only other chair.

“How long you plan to hold us hostage?” Ma asked him.

“You ain’t hostages,” he said. “Ain’t no demands or bargains been made. Only reason I’m watching you two is so one a you don’t run off and tell other folks where I am.”

“Why would they care? What is it you’ve done?”

He seemed to think on that awhile. “I helped a man steal some money, in town. A lot of money. I left ahead of him, but he’ll be here soon. When he gets here we’ll split the cash and go our separate ways.”

Ma’s eyes narrowed. “You’re saying he knows to meet you here? How?”

“ ’Cause I told him where I’d be. You don’t know me, but I knew your husband, from the sawmill. Him and me hired on there around the same time, after the war. I was there the day of his accident. That’s how I knew you and the kid live here alone.” He looked us both over and said, “I gotta ask, how you keep the place going, just the two a you?”

“We do just fine,” Ma said.

Which was of course a lie. We’d sold most of the livestock and managed to keep up with the crops, but we’d barely made ends meet this year, and probably wouldn’t for much longer. When half our barn caved in awhile back, Ma had gone to the bank in town to beg for a loan, but that got nowhere. I could still see their fancy suits and hats and their smirking faces staring back at us. You’re trying to run the farm without a man? Sorry, Mrs. Martin, we can’t help you. Murphy’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “What’s your name, boy?”

“Billy,” I said.

“And how old are you now?”

“Twelve, next month.”

Before he could reply, if he was going to, Ma said, “Where’d this money you been talking about come from, Mr. Murphy? The money you say you stole.”

“It came from the bank.” He added, when her face darkened, “You don’t approve?”

“It’s the bank I don’t approve of. I hope you took every penny they had.”

He looked amused. “My, my. You’re a hard woman, ain’t you.”

I watched them both stare at each other while I thought about her hidden gun. He didn’t know how right he was.

After a moment she said, in a softer voice, “What do you plan to do to us, after this friend of yours arrives?”

He shrugged. “Nothing. We’ll ride outta here and you can go on with whatever you was doing ’fore I came.”

His eyes, though, said something different. I had seen him hesitate before answering, had seen the uneasy look on his face. Even at my age, I figured he and his partner wouldn’t want to leave any witnesses. Or at least his partner wouldn’t. I suspected Ma figured it too. From the corner of my eye I saw her wrist move a bit as she adjusted her grip on the revolver under the folds of her dress.

This story appears in our MAR 2023 Issue
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