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The Unfortunate Incident at Cottonwood Falls
About the Author: J. R. Holland's unpublished manuscript, Alice Roosevelt and the White House Gunfighters, is a finalist for the 2023 Killer Nashville Claymore Award.

The Aitchison, Topeka and Santa Fe lurched into the Cottonwood Falls station, clanking and hissing, belching a cloud of coal dust. Virgil prowled closer to the depot, puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette and watching the train grind to a halt. 

A stout lady of about seventy years stepped gingerly onto the platform, waving away particles of grit and unfurling an umbrella. Virgil sighed with relief—the only one getting off the train was Old Lady Barnaby. Once, Virgil hated the boredom of Cottonwood Falls; now, he welcomed it—in fact, his life depended on it.

Virgil sauntered by the doddering old bag, who frowned at him. Virgil smirked and flicked his smoldering butt at her swirling petticoat.

Virgil’s heart fluttered, and he took a deep breath and hesitated. He rambled down main street, still on the alert for strangers, and then stopped at the five-and-dime and grabbed a newspaper from the counter. Teddy Roosevelt grinned on the front page, his mustache bristling. Virgil stared at the headline, slowly mouthing the words: “President Smashes Railroad Trust.” 

The store manager chortled and pointed. “I got picture books over there.”

Virgil flushed and reached into his coat pocket. The manager ducked behind the counter and clutched an oak plank. Virgil hesitated—now was not the time to get thrown in the hoosegow. He tossed the paper on the counter, gave the manager his best dead-eye look and ambled away. 

Virgil trudged down the street, keeping an eye out for strangers—he knew everyone in Cottonwood Falls. He halted before the haberdashery, pressed his cheek against the glass and gaped at the Prince Albert suit on display—imported from London, worsted black wool. The merchant had one for twenty dollars that fit him perfectly. Virgil fingered the wad of banknotes in his pocket—they warned not to attract attention by spending.  

Virgil sat on a barrel, rolled a cigarette and pondered. He trusted his instincts, and they told him he could depend on one man—Cole. Virgil methodically checked Cole’s usual haunts and quickly arrived at the Jubilee. He opened the door to the saloon and a wave of excited chatter and off-key piano playing washed over him. Virgil found only familiar faces among the farmers, cowhands, store keeps and barmaids—no strangers lurked at the Jubilee. 

Cole stood and waved at Virgil. He could pass for Virgil’s brother—young, tall, slender. Virgil joined Cole and bought him the first round; they shared a few more. 

Virgil finished the dregs of his fifth beer before he worked up enough nerve. “I need your help. Something serious, bad.”

“You can count on me—problem with the crop?”

Virgil stared at Cole. “This ain’t about farm work.”

Cole nodded. “I got you.” 

Virgil locked eyes with his friend. Cole got sideways with the law occasionally and needed no more explanation.  

“Happened all the way in Denver,” Virgil said. “You mighta read about it in the papers.”

“Is this another one of your stories?”

Virgil pouted. “You want to hear about it or not?”

“Beats working, I guess.”

“A crazy job. Not everything according to Hoyle.” Virgil leaned over. “You gotta promise never to say anything. There’ll be serious problems if you do. For me and for you.”

“Sure, okay. But it sounds like you shouldn’t say anything.”

Virgil rubbed his handlebar mustache. “I don’t have no choice.”

So Virgil told his story: A friend recruited him for the job. He meets as instructed in a warehouse in Denver with four other men from different parts of the country. All strangers. In walks a giant of a man, an Irishman at least six feet four and easily two hundred and fifty pounds, but in good shape. Flaming red hair. You could tell he’d been in a lot of scrapes—might be a boxer—with a broke nose and cauliflower ears.

This big Irishman gets in front and starts talking. He talks good for an Irishman. “You can call me the general,” he says. “We won’t be using our real names.” 

He talks very calm, like a bank teller counting greenbacks. Not blustery. “You need to know three things. Number one: This job involves a robbery and a killing. I’ll take care of the blood work. I don’t anticipate additional violence unless things go bad. Two: you absolutely cannot talk about this to anyone. If you do, we will kill you and your family. The only thing that will get us caught is boasting about the job.”

This story appears in our DEC 2023 Issue
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