Return of the Exile

Sonya Lano | 02/09/2011

Two weeks after Sanctorium’s most capable lawmen had abandoned it to make the great and foolish exodus to the gold fields, the exile returned.
He came at dawn, limping into town, leaning heavily on a makeshift staff, and dragging a casket behind him. The heavy coffin dug furrows in the parched, gritty ground and marked the exile’s progress in the land like a scar.
The blacksmith stared, the leather worker stared; even a drunk lazing outside the saloon stared, but no one lifted a hand to stop him. Each man stood (or slouched) helpless as a babe, slack-jawed as a half-wit and incredulous as a heathen.
He should never have survived the wilderness, not banished as he had been to the inhospitable desert rife with renegade Injuns, starving wolves and rattlesnakes.
And yet here he was, dragging a casket straight through the center of Sanctorium, battered, bloody, and limping, but unarguably alive.
He heaved the pine box behind him up the steps of the famous Dog’s-Ear Saloon and shoved the swinging doors aside to limp unevenly into the room, not realizing the floor was covered in soap suds until his feet went flying out from under him.
He dropped the staff, let go of the coffin and landed with an undignified “Oof!” under the laughing eyes of the saloon keeper’s only daughter, Sybilla, who was standing near the doorway with a mop in her hands and a water bucket at her feet.
Closing his eyes against the pain, he grunted, “Go ahead and laugh while you can. Even rabbits insult a dead lion. And I’m in no shape to retaliate.”
Sybilla laughed again – probably the only person who dared do so, because despite her father’s disapproval, she had been Caleb’s friend for years. “I was wondering when you’d come back. Let me get some salve for those wounds,” she said soothingly. “And let’s hope it’ll calm that temper of yours.” Propping the mop against the wall, she crossed the room with the ease of a woman used to walking on wet floors, and disappeared into the back chamber.
Thudding footsteps pounded into the room. “What are you doing back?” roared Garth, the saloon keeper.
Caleb, his eyes still closed in a brief respite, permitted himself a small smile. “I see no sheriff or deputy to keep me out. Deserted you, haven’t they? For the sweet, intangible scent of gold.”
“I don’t need them,” Garth snarled and advanced threateningly. “I can throw your raggedy carcass out of town myself.”
Without opening his eyes, Caleb lifted his hand and cocked his pistol, his aim sure even without seeing his target. “Rethink, paps.”
Garth froze, his ruddy face and bullish neck purpling with rage. “I ain’t your paps. Never will be.”
The corner of Caleb’s mouth lifted. “And I was so hoping to have some real filial affection for you after I marry Sybilla.”
“Over my dead body!” Garth took another step forward before a bullet whizzing right past his ear halted him in his tracks.
“Don’t be too sure it won’t come to that, paps,” Caleb promised with a lethal edge, then, sensing that Sybilla had come back into the room, gentled his tone. “Open the casket, Sybilla.”
“What trick is this, now?” growled Garth, but Caleb noted grimly that he didn’t move.
Sybilla knelt next to the casket and Caleb finally opened his eyes and pushed himself up, every bone in his body aching and every muscle protesting. He had gone through hell to get to this moment and he sure as heck wasn’t going to miss it because a few soap suds had bruised his butt.
Sybilla’s hand hovered indecisively over the casket lid and she was looking at him expectantly. At his slight nod, she shoved it open.
He watched her lips part in amazement and smiled to himself. He knew what she was seeing.
Brushing aside a cobweb, she reached inside the casket and dug out a handful of gold.
“What trickery is this?” cried Garth angrily, taking another step forward until Caleb trained the pistol on him again.
“You can’t say I’m without prospects now, paps. Got me a coffin full of gold here. You have to let me marry her.”
“Over my dead—”
“Not this again,” muttered Caleb and shot the towel out of the annoying old man’s hand. The cloth went fluttering to the ground, a hole the breadth of a finger marring its center.
“Caleb,” Sybilla said quietly, accusingly, but not because he’d shot at her father – she knew he would never harm Garth, no matter what the provocation. Her eyes were riveted on the casket. “Where did you get this?”
Caleb grinned proudly. “My great-grandmother was the greatest mail coach robber ever known – or rather, not known. Never caught, never even suspected. She took her fortune with her to the grave, had it buried right next to her. I figured it was time to dig up the family legacy and put it to some good use.”
“Not all the gold in the world can bribe me for my daughter’s hand in marriage!” Garth vowed defiantly.
Caleb laughed carelessly. “It’s not for you, paps. It’s for us to start the school Sybilla’s been wanting to open so bad.”
He knew then by the tears shining in her eyes that he’d won. She was coming with him – would follow him to the ends of the earth if he so asked.
“You’d best let her go,” Caleb calmly advised the fuming saloon keeper. “I’ve heard that to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance – maybe you should take that to heart and you won’t be so lonely.”
“Be nice,” Sybilla admonished him, but happiness was welling up inside her, and her words carried no sting.
Caleb climbed unsteadily to his feet, pulling her up beside him. What the hell, he thought. The victor could always afford to be merciful. He extended a hand toward Garth. “What say you, old man? We build the school here and I get to call you paps.”

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