Around dusk on a mildly sunny Friday afternoon, many of the stores, shops, and businesses began locking up for the day in the tiny town of Manasseh, Wyoming. While most of the townspeople began walking to their houses, one business had just opened, the saloon.
* * *
Right before the saloon opened, a man rode into the western end of town. He stopped and tied his white horse onto the hitching post just outside the saloon. He walked up the steps and through the building's freshly painted navy blue batwing doors.
The old bartender looked at the man and thought about telling him that the saloon wasn't open, but he decided against it. The man sat down at the bar, and the bartender felt a falling sensation in his gut. I hate it when soldiers come, thought the bartender.
The man took off his U.S. Cavalry Stetson and placed it on the bar. "Give me a bottle of your strongest, please," the man said. He pulled his gloves off with his teeth, and then buried his face in his hands until the bartender put the bottle on the counter.
"Thank you," he told the bartender.
"Sure, you uh, you want a glass?" the bartender asked.
The soldier shook his head and took a few gulps from the bottle. He put down the whiskey and began tracing patterns on the counter's wood with his finger.
"You cavalry?" the bartender asked. The soldier looked at the bartender with deep, green, bloodshot eyes and nodded. "Any more of you around?"
"No," the cavalryman said, and he laid his forehead down on the countertop.
The bartender began to feel a touch of compassion for the cavalryman. "You alright, son?"
"Well, is there anything I can do to help?" the bartender asked.
The cavalryman sat up and took a few more gulps. "Do you know a place where I can sleep?"
"Sure do, you can stay at the hotel next door. My wife and I just opened it and this saloon. This is all brand new," the bartender told the cavalryman proudly. The cavalryman looked around the saloon, which had unpainted lumber walls adorned only with oil lamps, an untreated wooden floor, and a few tables. The wood in the place was so yellow and new, it almost made the cavalryman squint.
"I'm Josiah, by the way. Josiah Martin," the bartender said, holding out his hand to the cavalryman. The soldier took Josiah's hand and shook it firmly. "I'm Abe," he told Josiah.
"Abe? You mean like Abraham?"
The soldier shook his head. "Absalom."
Josiah smirked. "That ain't a name you hear often."
Absalom gave Josiah a quick, wry little smile and then looked down at the bar again. "My parents were odd folks," he said. Josiah smiled politely and decided to leave Absalom to his brooding.
While Absalom sat and drank, horses galloped up the town's main road. Four men tied their horses outside and walked into the saloon, talking amongst themselves.
"Two bottles of whiskey, Josiah, and glasses," one of the men demanded. Josiah put the bottles and glasses on the bar, and his waitress served the men, trying to give the men wide birth while giving them their drinks. After she finished, she walked back to the bar, narrowly escaping a grope from one of the men.
One of the cowboys took out a deck of cards and began dealing them around the table, while his buddies sipped on their whiskey. Once they started playing, they chatted, complaining about their work on a ranch and about a man named Bishop. Once they finished one of the whiskey bottles their conversation shifted to their activities the previous weekend.
Absalom sat up from the bar and inclined his ear towards the cowboys' conversation. After a few moments of listening, he sat straight in his chair and pensively rubbed his black beard. "Josiah," he called, "can you give me a couple of glasses?"
"Sure," he said. He gave Absalom two small glasses. Absalom poured two shots of whiskey and gave one glass to the bartender. Josiah raised the glass to Absalom appreciatively, and the two men drank. Absalom poured another shot for Josiah, and another, but neglected to pour shots for himself. "What're those cowboys over there talkin' about?" he asked Josiah after the old man had consumed a few shots.
Josiah just shrugged. "Can't say. Haven't really been listening."
Absalom frowned, and poured another shot for himself and another shot for Josiah. Josiah drank his in one gulp while Absalom sipped his shot. "I overheard them saying something about a Mormon family that lived on top of the hill just north of town," Absalom informed while he poured another drink for Josiah.
"Oh, yeah, that, I don't know when they'll stop talking about them."
"Yep," Josiah said with a nod. "There used to be a Mormon family on top of that hill." Josiah said, taking his drink. Now the old man looked down at the bar, his cloudy blue eyes full of regret, or shame.
"Yeah, I saw that place on my way here," Absalom recalled, and he drained the rest of the whiskey from his glass. "Looked like somebody torched that whole farm to the ground. That where they lived?"
Josiah frowned and nodded.
"They all dead?" Absalom asked, and he looked Josiah in the eye. Absalom's intense stare unnerved Josiah, and the old man looked at his shoes. "Yes" was all Josiah could say.
"Huh, those poor, sorry shits," Abe grunted. He dropped some coins on the bar and stood. "Thanks for the whiskey and the conversation," he said. He grabbed his hat, his gloves, and his bottle and walked to the hotel next door.
He walked into the hotel to see an elderly woman reading a novel by lamplight. When Absalom walked toward her across the shiny hardwood floor, she smiled politely and stood slowly. "Hello, would you like a room?" she asked.
"Yeah, I got a horse outside. You got a stable?"
"We do. Daniel! Daniel I need you!" the old woman yelled. A few seconds passed before a boy around the age of twelve came downstairs into the small hotel lobby. "Daniel, this gentleman has a horse out front that needs stablin'," she said. "You go take it out back and fetch his things to his room when you're done."
The boy looked up at Absalom. To the boy, the man looked as tall as the ceiling. "It's the white one, with the U.S. brand."
"You a soldier?" the boy asked
Absalom nodded at the boy with a tight frown.
"You killed many Indians?" the boy asked. The old woman smacked him on the back of the head, and the boy grimaced while he walked toward the door."
"I'm sorry, I'm afraid my grandson don't have no manners." She said. "Now, how many nights you gonna be staying?"
"I'm not sure yet," Absalom admitted as he took a coin purse from his pocket.
"Well, you gotta pay up front. I've had too many folks leave without payin'."
"I understand. I'll just pay for tonight, and I'll pay you again tomorrow." He said. "You got a barber and a bath house in this town?"
"Owner of the general store's name's Walter. He's our barber, and the second floor of his store serves as the bath house."
Abraham nodded. He put the payment for his room on the countertop, and she slid him a key. "You'll be stayin' in room two-oh-one. It's the first room upstairs," she informed him. He smiled his appreciation and walked slowly up the narrow staircase, watching his feet as he ascended. He walked into his room and slammed the door shut behind him.
A few minutes later, Daniel walked back inside, carrying a large blanket, saddle, and saddlebags. He went up the stairs to Absalom's room and knocked on the door.
The door opened, and Daniel looked up at the big soldier with long black hair. The soldier's eyes were red and full of tears. The soldier snatched his things from the boy, turned, and kicked the door shut behind him.
Saturday morning, right around noon, Absalom trudged down the stairs to the front desk. He paid the old lady for another night, and then he went to the diner for lunch. After he ate his meal of cornbread and chili, he left the diner and walked towards the general store.
* * *
The townspeople went about their work diligently, but occasionally, some would steal a few glances at Manasseh's newcomer. Whenever Absalom looked at the wandering eyes of the locals, they looked away, without acknowledging his presence.
When Absalom walked into the general store, the owner mumbled a greeting without looking up from his magazine. Absalom stood in the center of the store, looking around at the store's various odds and ends, until the man's eyes left his catalog. "Oh, well, you're new. Can I help you with something?"
Absalom smiled thinly and walked up to the counter. "You the barber?" Absalom asked.
"I am. You need a shave?" the man inquired.
"Yes, I do, among other things, but let's start with a shave."
"Alright, then, step this way," the man told him. He beckoned Absalom to sit in the barber's chair at the back corner of the store. Absalom sat while the man drew water from a pump outside the store. While he sat, he saw a set of nice men's clothes hanging on a rack. When the man came back, he mixed some shaving cream for Absalom. "How close do you want it?" the man asked.
"I want my beard gone," Absalom said.
"Wow, that'll be quite the change. You got a handsome beard. You sure you wanna get rid of it?" asked the man.
"Yes." Absalom said in a whisper. "My momma always preferred me without a beard."
"Yeah? She uh, she here in town?"
"Nah, she's dead," Absalom admitted.
"Oh, well, I'm sorry to hear that," the barber said awkwardly. Absalom said nothing, so the barber began to give Absalom his shave.
When he got close to being done, the man Absalom if he wanted a haircut, which Absalom turned down. "I like it long," he told the barber, "but I am gonna need a bath, some new clothes, and my uniform washed."
The barber wiped off Absalom's face, and he saw why he had kept a long beard. Absalom had a large diagonal scar that ran from under his left nostril, across his mouth, and down to his jaw. "You see much action in the cavalry?" the barber asked.
"A little. When does the service start?" Absalom asked, eager to change the topic.
"The service," Absalom repeated. "I saw that big white church at the end of the town. It's real prominent. You do have services there, right?"
"Oh, yeah, we do. Service starts at 10. You'll hear the church bell around that time; it's big and loud."
"The congregation big?"
"Well, yeah, usually everyone in town and a few folks from outside attend."
"Well, you must have quite the preacher there," Absalom reckoned.
The barber shrugged. "I guess so."
Absalom chose a set of clothes before going upstairs for his bath. After he had finished, he put on his new clothes, picked out some pipe tobacco, and paid the storeowner for his goods and services.
After Absalom ate his dinner, he walked back to the hotel and saloon. He paid the old lady at the hotel for two more nights, and then he walked across the road to a building that had a shingle with the words "U.S. Marshal's Office" hanging above a locked door. Absalom looked inside and saw nothing and no one. He leaned against the hitching post outside the Marshal's office and packed some tobacco in his pipe.
While he smoked, he watched the town: the way it looked and the way it acted. Most of the buildings' wood looked new, and many of the buildings sat unpainted. At the opposite end of where he stood sat a small group of houses, and at the end of the neighborhood sat the town church. All the houses and the church had white paint. The church itself had stained glass windows and a tall steeple topped with black cross.
As the sun set, Absalom saw many men of the town begin entering the saloon, along with the same four men he had seen in there the night before. Absalom observed the saloon for a long time, watching the patrons leave long before the four men decided to go. Absalom watched as the men, drunk, decided to end their night. They walked outside, haphazardly mounted their horses, and trotted off out of town, seemingly guided only by their horses' memories.
When the town stopped moving, Absalom walked back inside the hotel, tipped his hat to the old lady, and went up to his room.
When the church bells began ringing, Absalom walked down the road to the church, passing a few other church goers as he made his way up the small, dirty street. He sat in the back and waited for the service to start, but when it started, few people had made their way to church that morning. The people sang their hymns to the Lord with apathy, and when the preacher got up to speak, most of the congregation looked down at the floor, except for Absalom and another man who sat in the pew opposite of Absalom.
* * *
The pastor spoke to his congregation about God's judgment on Apostasy and rebuked those who had not attended the morning's service. Absalom gradually lost interest, until the preacher said something that regained his attention: "Now, what happened to those Mormons—What Mr. Bishop and I did—that was us carrying out God's judgment. Those Mormon folks were apostates. All Mormons know the truth, they know the Scriptures, but they have rejected it!" the preacher yelled, startling a few members of the congregation.
The short, pudgy man sitting across from Absalom nodded his head furiously and delivered an encouraging "Amen!" to the pastor. A young woman sat next to him, looking down at the floor, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. The pastor nodded at the man and continued. "They're no better than blasphemous, idolatrous heathens! Mr. Bishop and I showed them the Lord's judgment," the pastor said as he pointed at the spirited man who sat across the aisle from Absalom.
When the sermon ended, Absalom shook the preacher's hand before leaving the church. "That was quite the message, Pastor," Absalom commented.
"Thank you, son," the old preacher said. "I've never seen you here before; you must be new here in town. I'm pastor Amos."
"Oh, short for Abraham, I would assume," Amos stated.
Absalom smiled humorlessly. "Abe's just fine."
The pastor talked with Absalom a few minutes while the rest of the congregation went around them, avoiding eye contact with the pastor and going back to their homes. "Hey, listen, I'm afraid the diner is closed today, just like all the businesses here in town. Why don't you come to my place and have lunch with me?"
Absalom looked outside at the town. No one went down the street. Every family that attended the service either walked back to their houses or rode out of town. He traced the scar on his face with his forefinger for a moment before answering Amos. "Alright then, Much obliged, Pastor."
Absalom followed Amos to his house, a small parsonage that sat next to the church. The humble house had one room, with a bed in one corner, a wardrobe in another, a stove and kitchen next to the front door, and a square table that sat in the center of the room.
"Please, make yourself at home," the pastor invited. Absalom sat down at the table. Amos asked him the polite questions that people ask when they make a new acquaintance. Who are you, what do you do, and why did you come here? Absalom replied politely, but did not add much to the conversation. Once they ate the stew that the pastor had made, Absalom thanked him and left.
Absalom walked back to his hotel room and drank himself into a Sunday afternoon nap. When he awoke, he took out his guns. He disassembled and cleaned both his service revolver and his rifle, and then he sharpened his large bowie knife. Absalom ate some hard tack from some rations that he had brought for dinner, and after he ate, he went to bed early, just after sunset.
The next morning, Absalom awoke at dawn. He put on his clothes and rode out to the Mormon farm. He walked out into the middle of ashy remnants of the burnt house, fell to his knees, and wept. While he cried, he noticed something in the charred ruins that didn't resemble wood. He dug in the ashes a bit until he found bones. He stood and walked back and forth, digging through the ashes for more. The more bones he found, the more he sobbed. "I'm sorry," he cried, over and over, until he felt the sun's heat high above the back of his neck. "I'm sorry."
He stood and composed himself, taking deep breaths and wiping the tears from his eyes. He rode back into town and ate lunch. After lunch, he wandered around town until closing time, when the saloon opened. He walked inside and sat down at the bar. "Give me two bottles of whiskey, Josiah," Absalom ordered. Josiah put down two bottles of whiskey and a glass. "Put a glass down for yourself," Absalom told the man, and the old bartender poured himself a drink of Absalom's whiskey. Absalom took a shot for himself, and then poured himself another, and another.
When the four ranch hands walked in, they sat down at a table in the corner of the saloon. Absalom picked up his bottles and walked over to the table. He sat his bottles down and asked, "You men mind if I join you?"
The four men looked at the bottles of free whiskey with greedy eyes and smiled at Absalom. "Go right ahead," one of the men told him. "I'm Jack, by the way. These fellows here are Jonah, Brett, and Jimmie."
Absalom smiled and pulled a chair up to the circular table. He sat with his back to the corner of the saloon. "Pleasure to meet you fellas. The name's Abe." Absalom said, and he waved at Josiah. "Can I get four more glasses over here?"
The waitress walked over to the table and set down four more glasses, after she successfully shrugged off a few unwanted advances from Brett and Jonah and escaped a grope from Jack. Absalom filled their glasses. They drank, and he filled them again. Soon, the cowboys finished a full bottle without any help from Absalom.
As other customers began trickling in, Absalom just sat with a thin smile and watched them as they talked, contributing little to the conversation as the night went on and drinking little of the whiskey he had purchased. Absalom ordered another bottle of whiskey, but he switched to drinking beer while his new acquaintances continued drinking the free whiskey.
"You boys like cards?" Absalom asked, pulling a deck of cards from his pocket.
All four of the men hollered gleefully. "Do we ever!" Brett cheered. Absalom dealt the cards to the four men, and they began to play. The four drunk men liked Absalom even more when they realized that he had no idea how to play poker.
"Wow, Abe, I like you. You're easy money and easy drink," Jonah's words slurred together as he attempted to pay Absalom a compliment.
"Well, I'm not good at much, but I guess I've got charisma."
"What's carsma?" Jimmie asked.
"Charisma's just being likable," Absalom explained, and the four men laughed and nodded. "So, tell me," Absalom said, "I've been hearin' folks talkin' a lot about a family of Mormons, but I don't think I've seen any Mormons around town."
The four men looked at each other hesitantly, but then Jack laughed. "Well," Jack said, "that's because they ain't around no more."
"Oh really? Why's that?" asked Absalom.
Jimmie, Jonah, and Brett, hesitated, but Jack kept laughing. "Man, he ain't the law, it don't matter none," Jonah said to his three companions, then turned to Absalom, "they dead now, friend."
Absalom let out a sigh, and a small smile grew on his face. "That right? What happened to them?
Brett, Jack, and Jimmie, all sat and looked at Jonah with their mouths open, surprised that he had said this, but not stopping him from saying anything else. The conversations of the other patrons began to die down a bit at the mention of the Mormon family's demise. Jonah looked around at the other people in the room, and most of them stared down at their tables and their drinks. Jonah leaned closer to Absalom's right side and whispered, "We killed 'em."
Absalom nodded and bit his lip. "Tell me why."
"Well, uh, so," Brett stammered, struggling to find a place to begin, "We work for a Bishop . . . uh . . . Mr. Bishop . . . "
" . . . Go on . . . " Absalom urged.
Jack took over for Brett. "Mr. Bishop's daughter loved one of thems Mormons' boys, see, but Bishop's friend Amos wants to marry Ms. Charity."
"Pastor Amos?" Absalom asked, and Jack nodded.
Brett remembered what he wanted to say, "Preacher Amost and Mr. Bishop wanted to trick the Mormon boy, see?" he explained. "He said that they could use the church for some sorta Mormon hocust pocust . . . some kinda . . . Mormon marriage . . . uh . . . "
"A sealing." Absalom said.
"Yeah that's it, only it was a trick, see!" Brett explained. Most of the saloons' patrons had left and Josiah ignored them by engaging in busywork. "We was waitin' for 'em inside the church. The four of us and Mr. Bishop and Preacher Amost." Brett explained, and as he tried to keep himself from chuckling sadistically, he started laughing. "We shot all a' them poor shits dead." Brett broke out into a real laughter then, and his friends just smiled awkwardly.
Absalom rubbed his eyes. "How'd the law handle word of that?"
All four of the men laughed then. "Marshall ain't been around for nearly a year now," Jack explained.
"Yeah," Jimmie joined in. "He probably dead."
"Nah, he probably just got bored," Jonah reckoned. "Nothin' much happens here."
Brett laughed hysterically then, and the three other cowboys followed him. Absalom said nothing. He just stared at each one of the men sitting around that table. Jimmie and Brett sat to his left, and Jack and Jonah sat to his right. His pistol rested on his left hip, and none of the cowboys noticed him unfasten the black flap on his holster. The pistol handle stuck out, pointed towards his right hand. His Bowie knife sat behind him on his belt, its handle pointed to his left hand. He sat back in his chair slowly and rested his hand on his stomach, close to the pistol grip. "Where does Bishop live?"
The cowboys' laughing died down a bit. "He lives west. That there road that leads into town goes straight by his ranch," Jack explained.
Absalom nodded. He traced the scar on his face with his finger. "That where y'all live?' He asked them. The boys all nodded sluggishly and grunted a drunken "Yeah" in response.
"So, let me get this straight," he said finally. He looked at each of the men and their stupid grins. "The six of you—you four, your boss, and Amos—killed 17 people: 4 men, 5 women, 3 little boys, and 5 little girls?"
Brett and Jack started to laugh again, and Jonah began again when he saw them. Only Jimmie didn't laugh. He looked slightly confused. "How'd you know th-"
Absalom stood and threw the table onto Brett and Jack, who fell backward onto the floor. He drew his pistol and shot Jimmie in the head, and blood sprayed out the back of his head as he fell to the floor. Absalom turned and did the same to Jonah before he had the chance to pull his gun from his holster. Brett and Jack squirmed underneath the table, struggling to reach their own pistols and get the table off them. Absalom knelt down on top of the table and shot Jack in the head. The new, dry wooden floor quickly soaked in the blood and gray matter from the freshly dead men.
Absalom then moved the table, and when Brett finally grabbed his pistol, Absalom stepped on Brett's pistol and shot the man three times in the arm: once in the wrist, once in the elbow, and once in the shoulder.
Absalom pulled the gun from Brett's holster and tossed it away. He then pulled out his Bowie knife, and started to stab it into Brett's flesh. He stabbed Brett seventeen times, and he continued to stab the man after life left him, saying the names of all seventeen members of the family as he sank the blade deep into the dead man's body.
Absalom stood then and sheathed his knife after wiping the blood onto Brett's blue bandana. He reloaded his revolver and slid it back into the holster. He picked up the scattered money from the game of cards and put it on the bar. Josiah didn't say or do anything; he just stared at Absalom, dumbstruck. "Sorry for the mess." Absalom said. He turned and walked out the saloon doors. He mounted his horse and rode into the night, toward Bishop's ranch.
He could see it from the town as he rode. The moon and stars illuminated the plains well, and light from the ranch burned into the night like a cigar's flame. He followed that light until he could see movement around the main house. He dismounted his horse and pulled the rifle from his saddle.
Absalom knelt down to the ground and watched the house for a few minutes. He saw little movement inside the house, and he heard no commotion. He moved quickly toward the house, staying low in the grass and keeping his eyes on the place. He knelt for a moment in the grass, less than fifty yards from the house, rubbing his scar. He fired twice in the air and let out a yell. "Brett! Keep that shit holstered!" he hollered at the house.
The door opened and the short man from the church service emerged. "What'd I tell you boys about-"
Absalom shot the man in the gut. The man stumbled back into the house, and Absalom chased after him. When he reached the door, he saw a woman seated at a table, screaming, and the man reaching for a nearby drawer. Absalom shot the man again, in the back, and the man's hand fell to the floor. Absalom walked over to the man and kicked him over; the man's dead eyes stared back at Absalom with fearful surprise.
Absalom turned and looked at the petite woman he had seen at church the day before. She ran over to the man lying on the ground and wept over his body. "Which one did you love?" he asked her. Her sobbing died down a bit at the question.
"What?" she asked without turning to look at him.
"Which one did you love?" he asked again. "Was it Solomon, Nathan, or Daniel?"
She turned and looked at the man who had killed her father and saw his face wet with tears. "Nathan," she said. The man nodded, rubbed his eyes, and left her with her father.
Absalom rode quickly back to the town, but he slowed his pace when he got close. As he approached he saw a crowd gathered outside the saloon. Word had spread throughout the town about how the outsider had killed four men inside the saloon, and folks wanted to see it for themselves. Absalom rode around the perimeter of the town and tied up his horse outside the church. He walked slowly towards the parsonage, looking inside the windows for Amos.
While he peeked inside the house, someone grabbed his long black hair and pulled him backwards. Absalom saw Amos as he stabbed Absalom in the stomach with a thin blade. Absalom tried to grab his gun, but Amos caught Absalom's right hand before he could reach it. Absalom reached back and grabbed his own Bowie knife, and Absalom stabbed Amos in the leg before he had the chance to sink the knife into him again.
Amos stumbled back and yelled, surprised by the strength of the pain. He looked down at the knife in his leg and pulled it out, yelling as the warm, sticky blood flowed out of the wound and down his pants leg. He dropped the large knife and looked down at Absalom, who lay on the ground with his gun pointed at his head.
Absalom pulled the trigger. The bullet went through the pastor's neck and took the life from him as he choked on wet gasps.
Absalom dropped his pistol and crawled toward his horse, chased by the sounds of the townspeople approaching. He had to struggle to climb his horse, but he managed, and he rode north, toward the Mormon farm.
When he got to the place, he rode the horse all the way into the ashes of the home. He fell off his horse and laid flat on his back. As the blood drained from his belly, his eyes began to close, and Absalom slept with his fathers.