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Murder Manhatten Style -- Warren Bull

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Abraham Lincoln for The Defense

“Warren Bull is a short story master, and this collection shows him at his best with quick stories told in crisp, clear prose. There's variety, drama, history, humor, pathos, compassion, and even Shakespeare here, along with surprising and satisfying endings to every story.”
   — Nancy Pickard, New York Times Bestselling Author

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reviews

Warren Bull is a short story master, and this collection shows him at his best with quick stories told in crisp, clear prose. There's variety, drama, history, humor, pathos, compassion, and even Shakespeare here, along with surprising and satisfying endings to every story.

— Nancy Pickard, New York Times Bestselling Author

Praise for Murder Manhattan Style

In this collection, Warren Bull takes his readers across the American landscape with stories of justice and injustice, truth and speculation; and humor and noir. The Manhattan in the title sometimes refers to the suave part of New York and sometimes to its prairie twin in Kansas. The stories are equally diverse. Bull writes tales of children outwitting their elders in the name of what’s right in turbulent Bleeding Kansas; of card sharks, clever dames and tough guys out on the town in the flush days of post-World War II; of an anguished husband and another furious father thwarted while seeking revenge; and a crime writer who really can’t handle rejection. Bull proposes intriguing questions—What if the ghost of Hamlet’s father wasn’t an apparition after all?—and moral ones—At what point is personal danger more tolerable than the loss of human dignity? Warren Bull is a thoughtful, gifted writer who blends history, language, pathos and a fine wit to tell terrific stories.

— Ramona DeFelice Long, author and independent editor

Murder Manhattan Style by Warren Bull is a collage of well-written stories as different as their settings, ranging from the Manhattan in Kansas to the town of the same name in New York with whistle stops along the way. Characters as diverse as a young brother and sister encountering crime and prejudice in 1850’s Middle America, tough-talking gumshoes of the 1930’s and 40’s Big Apple, to some who practice crime in the present day. Even a delightful homage visit with guys and dolls in Damon Runyon mode, those lovable characters who begin each day with the racing form and end it with whatever scheme looks profitable.

Wherever and whenever these well-drawn characters play out their stories, there’s more to savor than what they do and say. Underlying each engaging tale is a glimpse of what’s going on in their minds and how they mentally process what’s going on around them. It takes a practicing psychologist to relate that element so sharply and, fortunately for readers of these stories, that’s precisely what Warren Bull happens to be when he’s not writing fiction.

Highly recommended morsels for when you want to spice up your reading diet with variety.

— Earl Staggs, Derringer Award winning author and author of Memory of a Murder

"Witty, charming, and clever, Warren Bull’s stories capture perfectly the plains of Manhattan, Kansas, the mean streets of Manhattan, New York, and everything in between. His characters sparkle with humor and smarts."

— Lisa Harkrader, author of Nocturne, a YA fantasy, William Allen White Award winner for Airball: My Life in Briefs

Warren Bull’s Murder Manhattan Style

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I’ve always written about novels before now.

But when I read Warren Bull’s short story collection, MURDER MANHATTAN STYLE, not long ago, I saw the chance to study how a writer develops his fiction skills over time without my having to read a bunch of books. Besides that, the fifteen stories present a tasty sampling of mystery genres.

The collection starts with “Beecher’s Bibles,” “Kansas Justice,” and “Butterfly Milkweed.” All three unfold in first person point of view, but from the perspective of a different member of the same family, the Millers, who lived near Manhattan, Kansas, not long before the Civil War. The first generates considerable suspense when two thugs capture Joshua, the narrator, only twelve, and his stepsister Amy and lie in wait for Joshua’s father. The kids trick the thugs and all ends well. The second is narrated by Amy. These two stories are straight-forward narratives, plot-oriented, and rest firmly on facts as we expect from historical mysteries.

But the third made me sit up and pay attention from the start with the narrator, Mr. Miller, caught in a deadly trap. It hooked me so well that I happily followed the narrator back in time in a well-executed flashback to discover how he hoodwinked the bank robbers who tried to kill him. At the end, the narrator returns us to the present scene and thus completes the frame in this skillfully structured story.

The next three stories, all set in Manhattan, New York, in 1938, are written in the spirit of Damon Runyon. “One Sweet Scam,” “Java Judy,” and “A Detective’s Romance” are very short and very tight. You can see Warren having fun practicing the set-up and pay-off in just a few words. But he’s also playing with voice and getting better at characterizing through it. Here’s a quick quotation from near the start of “Java Judy.” “A doll walks in who looks familiar. I puzzle my noodle until the penny drops.” Isn’t that fun? Plus, the voice clearly evokes the time, place, and Damon Runyon.

The next story, “A Detective’s Romance,” is the only one of the entire collection presented in third person, well chosen because this point of view gives the reader distance from the protagonist and gets the reader involved in figuring the mystery out.

Next we come to “The Wrong Man,” the first in a series of noir detective stories, set in 1947/48. Here Warren shows many of the skills he’s gained. This story has a frame around the main story in the past. It’s short. It’s tight. It’s got a surprise ending, neatly presented.

And the narrative voice rings true. Just look at the first sentence of the story. “The bulls shoved me through the precinct doors and double-timed me down the hall into the interrogation room.” “Bulls” is the right word for cops at this time. The verbs “shoved” and “double-timed” move us right into the story and down that hall so fast we can practically feel it. Also the dialogue in some of the early stories seems stiff, but here it’s snappy. For instance, one of the bulls calls the narrator a runt and another observes that if the narrator “sang,” that is, confessed, he’d sound “like one of the Andrews sisters.”

The next story, “Funeral Games,” another example of noir, is among other things a meditation on war and mortality. The narrator, the title, and the story itself all contribute to the theme of honoring those who’ve served their country.

I’ll leave the rest of the stories for you to discover on your own, except for the last one, “A Lady of Quality,” winner of the Best Short Story of 2006 from the Missouri Authors Guild. Quite rightly, too, as this is a beautifully written story. Like most of the stories in MURDER MANHATTAN STYLE, it’s written in first person and the narrator reaches out and grabs us with her first words: “Listen here.” She commands our attention from the start and holds it in this compelling, yet subtle story of suspense.

As defined by Carolyn Wheat in HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION, suspense revolves around a crime that unfolds before our eyes instead of a crime already committed at the start, like more traditional detective fiction. Will the narrator Lizzie, a young black woman in the 1960’s, escape from the velvet-gloved hand of steel of Mrs. Edwards, the white gentlewoman, who’s very aware of her position in the society of a southern town? Will Lizzie even see the trap in time?

Read “A Lady of Quality” and find out. I will tell you, in closing, that this last story shows a clear shift from plot-driven fiction in the earlier stories to character-driven fiction and Warren wrote it with an impeccable grasp of history, great sensitivity to the diction of the narrator, and powerful insight into, as William Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

NEXT TIME, on May 26: Louise Penny’s BURY YOUR DEAD. Meanwhile, happy reading & writing, Juliet

— Posted on May 12, 2011 by Juliet Kincaid

"From the hilltop I can see rolling green hills and a clear unlimited horizon. The prairie flowers have erupted into crimson, yellow, orange and blue. They sweeten the air. I smell smoke from the fire and the sweat of horses."

Murder Manhattan Style Reviewed by Sarah Hilary

A great friend of mine, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, was fond of giving this advice to aspiring writers: "Keep the mythic distance!" By which it was generally assumed that he meant never allow the viewer or reader to get close enough, to screen or page, to spy processes or flaws which might show up the finished product as anything less than epic.

Warren Bull is happy to show us these processes (and occasionally flaws) between thought and page, first draft and last, unpublished and published prose. At the end of each story in his collection, he footnotes how it came about, or what its fate was at the hands of a precarious small press publishing industry (one story was accepted for an anthology that was subsequently "scrapped due to finances"). I was torn between admiring his candour and wishing he’d not revealed so much of his craft. I wanted to believe in the storyteller’s magic by which he recreates scenes from 1850s mid-America, with its cowboys and Indians, or New York in the 1930s.

There are stories here that transport the reader, perhaps because Bull is a psychologist and effortlessly taps into the minds and voices of his characters. More than one story is written convincingly from the perspective of a young girl. In A Lady of Quality, the heroine is African-American, called from the cotton fields to work as a servant in a white household. Bull writes her voice so authentically that it’s almost a pity there aren’t more stories told by this narrator in the collection.

Diversity is another of his talents. Bull takes us from "Bleeding Kansas" in 1858 to a modern day Manhattan ghetto where justice is dealt out with equal brutality. There are upbeat, funny stories. There are downbeat, noir stories. Don’t be fooled by the shlocky cover (not the first time a short story collection will be ill-served by its publisher’s cover choice, and probably not the last), these stories cover distances and time, and mood, without losing a beat.

One or two stories suffer from odd pacing, ending too abruptly or moving too fast during sections which should unravel more intricately. Locard’s Principle feels as if it’s an exploratory outline for a novel, rather than a short story. But Bull is a master at the opening paragraph; there isn’t one here that doesn’t grab you by the throat. Acknowledging Funeral Games as darker than his average story, Bull fails to point out it’s also one of his very best, opening with a corpse and progressing as smoothly as a Raymond Chandler tale, through a sequence of excellent surprises to a satisfying denouement. Heidegger’s Cat is another example of Bull at his best, its political subtext as interesting as its pin-sharp, real-time action.

While it was interesting, in one sense, to read Bull’s footnotes to the stories, I’d suggest he drops them from any future collection; they seem amateurish, while the stories themselves are anything but. Keep the mythic distance, Warren!

— Susan Hilary won the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize in 2008. Her fiction appears in The Fish Anthology, Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction I, II and III, and in the Crime Writers' Association anthology, MO Crimes of Practice. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2009 and Highly Commended in the Sean O’Faolain short story competition 2010. Sarah is currently working on a novel. He agent is Jane Gregory.

excerpt

"Beecher's Bibles" -
First Chapter of MURDER MANHATTAN STYLE
by Warren Bull

When the two riders appeared out of nowhere, I knew they had come to kill my pa. I had seen smoldering, burned-out farmhouses. I had heard women cry and pray in church because riders had appeared during the night and called their husbands out to answer the question, “Are you for or against slavery?” The wrong answer or even a slow answer meant that the men were taken away and never seen again.

Murder Manhattan Style Pa was against slavery. When anybody asked, he made no bones about it. He didn’t preach about it. He didn’t ride with the Jayhawkers. According to my pa, violence was just as wrong when we did it as when they did it. That didn’t matter to the nightriders. These and others like them had turned the territory into “Bleeding Kansas.”

I didn’t recognize the two riders that were approaching our farm. One was tall, thin and clean-shaven. The other was stout and bearded. They rode as quietly as ghosts, careful to blend in with the lay of the land. Eventually, they stopped right outside our farmhouse and looked down at me like hawks eyeing a prairie dog. I surely didn’t look like much; I was twelve years old but small enough to pass for ten. They looked tough enough to take on a hundred of me. Each man carried a rifle and wore a Bowie knife at his waist.

“We’d like to speak with your father,” said the tall one.

I swallowed and answered, “He’s not here right now.” I think the man would have known if I was lying. I was glad to be speaking the truth. Earlier this morning a man on a lathered bay mare had rushed to the house to tell my pa something. They had spoken briefly. Then Pa saddled his long-legged roan and insisted that the man switch his tack to our gray stallion that could run all day. They put the bay in the barn. After Pa said a few words with my stepmother, Sarah, they left.

“When will he be back?” the shorter man asked.

“He didn’t say.”

As if there wasn’t already enough trouble, my stepsister, Amy, came running up just then. Her dress was wet and dirty below the knees. Her hair was full of burs. I could tell that she’d been playing by Wildcat Creek. She was not supposed to, but I knew this wasn’t the time to quarrel. She wouldn’t listen, anyway. Even though she was a year younger than me, she was my height. She could run faster, fight harder and shoot straighter than I could. Earlier that morning we each took four shots with a Sharps rifle at a target twenty-five paces away. Amy fired faster than I did and she hit with all her shots. I missed twice.

“Are you two here alone?” asked the tall man.

“Pa left,” said Amy. “Then a neighbor came by to fetch Ma. He said his wife was feeling poorly.”

The stout man chuckled, but he didn’t sound friendly. “Two children left alone in these troubled times?”

The tall man answered, “Why not? It would be a poor excuse for a man who would bother a woman or a child.”

“My name is Joshua,” I said, belatedly remembering my manners. No matter who these men were, I had been taught to be polite. “This is my stepsister, Amy. I’m sorry my pa and my stepmother are away. If you’d care to tell us who you are, we’ll be certain to tell Pa that you stopped by.”

“You can call me Mr. Anders,” said the tall man. “You can call him Mr. Bleak. Maybe we’ll keep you company until your pa comes back.” <.

“Would you like us to water and feed your horses and turn them into the corral?” asked Amy.

“Thank you, Amy,” said Anders, “but we’re used to caring for our own animals. I think we’ll put them in the barn to get them out of the sun.”

Amy gave me a sharp look. She might not have been the girl I would have chosen for a sister, but nobody ever said she was stupid. If the horses were left in the corral, my pa could tell long before he came to the house that strangers were here. With the horses in the barn, he would have no way of knowing. Anders and Bleak led their horses toward the barn, and we followed. Amy turned her back to the men and put her right hand over her heart with her fingers together pointing down. She moved her hand up and down from her wrist.

Silently I thanked my pa for teaching us Indian sign language. I saw the men were not looking at me. I clasped my hands together over the chest like two men shaking hands. Then, using my right hand, I pressed my index finger against my thumb and flicked the finger forward. Amy had signed trouble. I signed agree and talk.

Amy darted ahead of the men into the barn. She pulled a bucket from a peg on the wall. “We’ll get water,” she said.

We walked toward the well, with Amy carrying the bucket. I looked back. The men stopped outside the barn. The tall man waved at me and I waved back.

“They’re here after Pa,” said Amy.

“I think so, too.”

“We have to do something,” said Amy.

“But what?”

“When we get to the well, I’ll run,” said Amy. “I’m fast.”

“Not as fast as a man on horseback.”

“Then we’ll both run. They’ll chase you, and I can make it to the hideout.”

I answered, “If you do, you’ll be stuck there. If you leave, they’ll see you. You can’t warn Pa from there.”

When we reached the well, Amy did not run, much to my relief. We lowered the bucket. I felt like my stomach was sinking with it. My legs felt wobbly.

Amy said, “From here, I can get into the house and load a rifle before they catch me.”

“Then you’ll have one rifle against two. If you shoot one man, the other will shoot you. That won’t help Pa.”

We hauled up the bucket.

“We can pretend we think the men are Pa’s friends,” I said. “We can invite them into the house.”

“Why?”

“Because if they want to come in, we can’t stop them,” I answered.

We filled the bucket as full as we could get it.

“Let’s pretend they’re Pa’s friends,” I said. “They might relax a little. We’ll get a chance to do something later. If we try and fail now, they could tie us up and gag us. Then we couldn’t help Pa. We’ll get only one chance.”

Amy took one side of the bucket’s handle, and I took the other. We lifted it and slowly headed back.

“What’s your plan?” asked Amy.

“I don’t have one,” I answered. “We have to wait for a good chance. We have to recognize it and act.”

“If Pa comes home before we can act, I’ll jump them and scratch their eyes out,” Amy said.

“If that time comes,” I said, “you jump the one closest to you and I’ll use my pocketknife on the other one.”

I knew that, if that time came, Amy and I would be in trouble and Pa wouldn’t have a prayer. Amy and I together couldn’t take either man alone on his worst day. One on one, we had no chance at all. But we had to try. We carried the bucket into the barn and poured the water into a trough.

When Anders entered, he spotted the bay. He studied it.

“That’s one fine mare,” said Anders.

“She’s not ours,” Amy said. “I don’t know who she belongs to.” Anders and Bleak looked at each other like maybe they knew.

Bleak removed his tack from his horse and tossed it over the gate to the stall. Then he shifted from foot to foot as he waited for Anders. Anders carefully checked his horse over. He looked at its knees, looked in its mouth and raised each hoof in turn. He rubbed the animal down. Before leaving the stall, he made sure it had food and water.

We invited the men into our house. Bleak went straight to the fireplace and snatched a biscuit out of the Dutch oven on the hearth. He ate it right there, dropping crumbs on his beard and on the floor as he leaned his rifle against the wall. Anders took off his hat and looked over the room.

I said, “Please, if you’re hungry, we have plenty of food.”

“I could fix you a plate,” offered Amy.

“Much obliged,” answered Anders. “I could eat a biscuit if you have enough to go around.”

“Of course we do,” answered Amy. “Please take a seat.” She got out a plate, a knife and a jar of apple butter. Bleak stuffed his mouth full like a ravenous wolf. Amy took the last biscuit out of the Dutch oven. Anders set his rifle within easy reach and sat down at the table.

“What’s this?” asked Bleak, wiping his mouth with his sleeve and scattering crumbs. He reached above the fireplace and pulled a rifle off its pegs. “Is this one of them new Sharps?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Amy.

“That’s a breech-loading percussion rifle,” said Anders. “I’ve never seen one before but I’ve heard about them.”

Months ago, when Pa brought two Sharps rifles home, he explained that they were only to be used in self-defense. My stepmother had asked, “Are these what they call ‘Beecher Bibles’?”

Pa had smiled. “Yes, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher argues that we must be ready to defend ourselves. Some of the rifles were smuggled in using boxes labeled ‘Church Supplies.’ I suppose it doesn’t hurt that Mr. Sharps’s first name is Christian.” We had all laughed.

“Now,” my pa had said, “listen to the commandments: Always act as if these rifles are loaded. Never point one at a person unless you mean to shoot him. Never cock the hammer and pull the trigger unless there’s a cap on the cone where the hammer lands. Otherwise, the cone can crack. Always clean the rifle thoroughly after ten shots at most. Powder is forced backward into the works with each shot. It can jam the works. Powder left in the muzzle makes shooting inaccurate.”

Bleak burped explosively, which brought my attention back to the present.

“How does it work?” Bleak asked his friend.

Anders took the rifle. “There should be a catch. Here it is.” He pushed the trigger guard all the way forward. The breechblock inside the Sharps dropped down, leaving the path to the chamber free.

Bleak grabbed the rifle. “Let me see.” He worked the lever back and forth rapidly. “It’s like a bucket dropping into a well.”

Anders walked over to the mantel and looked at a box of cartridges and the open bag of caps.

“The cartridge must go into the breech,” said Anders, “not down the muzzle.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “You push the cartridge into the chamber with the ball forward. Then you move the lever back.”

Amy rolled her eyes but kept quiet. Didn’t she see that Anders would have figured that out on his own? We had to pretend to cooperate.

“What do you do then?” asked Anders, picking up a cap.

Amy said, “You half cock the hammer and fit a cap over the cone where the hammer strikes. You don’t want to fully cock the hammer until you’re ready to fire.”

“You just aim and fire once the hammer is fully cocked?” asked Anders. “And for the second shot you just repeat the steps?”

“You have to remove the old cap and put a new one on the cone each time,” said Amy. Smart girl. Anders would have known that after he fired the weapon one time.

I remembered that, after my pa was sure we could take care of the rifle, he had insisted that Amy, her mother and I learn how to shoot. Sarah didn’t like to fire the rifle but she quickly became a steady shooter. Amy, of course, took to it like a duck takes to water. I had the most problems. We could not figure out why I shot so poorly. Then Amy noticed that, just before I fired, I closed my eyes.

“You can’t hit what you don’t see,” my pa had said. “Lots of people close their eyes because of the flash and the noise. You have to practice staying calm, and then shoot slowly.”

I got better with practice, but I never caught up with Amy or her mother.

Anders whistled and said, “In the time it takes to load and fire a muzzle-loader once, even a woman or a child could fire this rifle two or three times.”

Bleak quickly went through the loading process without a cap or a cartridge and pulled the trigger. The hammer snapped home. He did it twice more.

Amy said, “That was pretty fast, but I can do it faster.”

Bleak shoved the lever forward, yanked it back, cocked the hammer and jerked the trigger. Snap. He did it over and over, faster and faster. Snap followed snap followed snap. “That’s enough,” said Anders. He walked over to the second Sharps, which was leaning against the wall. Amy and I had used that one to practice with earlier that morning. We had argued about whose turn it was to clean the rifle but neither of us had cleaned it yet. Of course we would before my father got home. Anders picked up the rifle and checked the works. “I want to shoot with this.”

I picked up two boxes of cartridges and a bag of caps. I took them to him.

“Can I come along?” I asked.

I showed him the stump Amy and I used for target practice.

Anders shaved the bark away, making a circle about the size of his fist. He paced off thirty paces and put five shots close enough together that a silver dollar could cover all five. Then he stepped back another ten paces and shot again five times. All shots were inside the circle.

“I wish I could shoot like that,” I said.

“Take the rifle and sight in on the stump,” said Anders. “Leave the hammer down and just point at the stump.” Anders stepped behind me and bent over. “You have it sighted well. You’re holding it steady. Now load the rifle.”

I did. I had a loaded weapon and Anders didn’t. But he was too close. I couldn’t swing the barrel around fast enough. Besides, Amy was still in the farmhouse with Bleak.

“You need to relax,” said Anders. “Breathe deep, point the rifle and squeeze the trigger gently. Don’t worry about aiming. Just point and squeeze.”

The gun went off.

“Sometimes I close my eyes,” I admitted.

“Lots of men do,” said Anders. “You’d be surprised how many. Don’t guess when the rifle will fire. Don’t tug at the trigger. Don’t try too hard to aim. Just load, point and squeeze.” I took seven more shots and handed the rifle back to Anders.

“Good job,” said Anders. “You seem a lot more relaxed than when you first took the rifle. Let’s check your shots.”

I was so scared that I thought my knees would buckle as we walked toward the stump. With my heart racing, I pointed to the cluster of shots Amy had made that morning. Luckily, a few shots of mine were not far away.

“Good shooting,” said Anders. “Let’s head back.”

When we got back to the farmhouse, we found Bleak gulping down the last of my stepmother’s apple pie.

“It’s getting late,” said Bleak. “They should be returning soon. We could tie the children to the corral and use them for bait.”

Amy glared at him. I balled my hands into fists.

“I don’t make war on children,” answered Anders. “We’ll lock them in the storm cellar.”

“Pa will expect us to come running out as soon as we see him,” said Amy. “He’ll be suspicious if we aren’t around.”

“He’ll be worried,” said Anders. “I can’t let you give him a warning.”

Amy feinted to her left and swung to her right. Anders took a half step toward her, cutting off her escape.

I ran at Bleak, my arms flailing. He backhanded me in the face, rattling my teeth, and then tossed me onto his shoulder like I was a sack of corn. I kicked and punched. It was like assaulting a buffalo barehanded. Bleak smelled of sweat, whiskey and smoke.

Amy twisted and dodged. Anders moved only when he could force her closer to a corner of the room where she could not escape. In short order he snared her wrist and then put his hands on both arms.

We shouted and squirmed, but Anders and Bleak forced us into the cellar under the house and dropped the door shut over us. Something heavy scraped across the floor and settled over the cellar door.

“Yell!” I demanded, hammering on the underside of the door.

“Why?” asked Amy. “Oh.” She shouted and banged on the door. After a few moments, she put her finger to her lips. We listened intently. All I could hear was Amy breathing heavily. No sound came through the floor.

“Did Bleak come down here and look around?” I asked Amy.

“No,” she said. “He played with the rifle and ate the whole time. Some of our hogs have better table manners. Let’s get out of here.”

We moved the empty barrels that Pa had put in front of the hidden door and looked out through the peephole. We snuck into the house and looked around. Anders and Bleak left their muzzle-loading rifles in the house. They took our rifles, boxes of cartridges and the bag of caps.

“They’re probably hidden in spots they can shoot from,” said Amy. “We don’t know where. We can’t let them see us.”

“Maybe, if we make a big circle and move quietly.…”

Then we stopped. We could hear Pa calling us. He was close.

“Josh, Amy, come meet Mr. Brown.”

We shouted warnings as we ran out of the house. Time seemed to slow down. Wild flowers in the distance gleamed brightly. I could smell the horses Pa and Mr. Brown were riding. Their horses’ hoof beats shook the earth. Bleak rose slowly from the ground and lifted the rifle into position to shoot. Anders rose without haste from a spot to the left of Bleak. They had Pa and Mr. Brown in their sights. We kept shouting and running but we could not move fast enough to help.

Bleak and Anders ignored us. Bleak pulled the trigger. The Sharps flashed backwards into his face. Bleak screamed. Time resumed its normal speed.

Anders fired. Pa kicked the roan into a run toward us. Mr. Brown kept our gray stallion at a walk. He acted like this sort of thing happened all the time. Anders looked down at the Sharps. Mr. Brown pulled a pistol from his holster and pointed it at Anders.

Pa pulled the roan to a stop. “Are you hurt?” he asked us.

I looked at Amy and she looked at me. “We’re fine,” I said.

“I’ll get a wet cloth for Mr. Bleak,” said Amy.

When she returned, Mr. Brown had Anders and Bleak against the wall of the house. Pa was asking me questions faster than I could answer. Amy carried the wet cloth to Bleak. As she reached up toward his burned face, Bleak grabbed her. He put one arm around her neck. With his other hand, he pulled his Bowie knife.

“Let me go or I’ll cut her,” said Bleak. Before I was aware of what I was doing, I ran at him and dived. I bounced off his leg. Bleak kicked at me and missed. Amy ducked her head. She bit his arm as hard as she could. Bleak screamed again. Anders smashed his fist into Bleak’s face. Bleak dropped the knife and let go of Amy. He fell to the ground and whimpered.

Amy ran to Pa. Anders picked up Bleak’s Bowie knife and threw it toward a fencepost. It struck with a thump, burying three inches of the blade into the wood. Anders then pulled out his own knife and threw it. It stuck in the same fencepost just above Bleak’s. Anders looked down at Bleak.

“I told you, I don’t make war on children,” said Anders.

Mr. Brown tied Anders and Bleak to a long rope. He looped one end of the rope over his saddle horn, and then he mounted the bay.

“I’m taking these men to Fort Riley,” said Brown.

“I’ll bring the horses along tomorrow,” said our pa. “I’ll testify at their trial. Maybe the jury will take notice that Mr. Anders protected Amy.”

Brown gave Pa an odd look. He touched his finger to his hat in a salute and started off with Bleak and Anders walking in front.

“All right, you two,” said Pa. “Tell me how that happened.”

“They seemed to come out of the ground,” I said. “I didn’t see them coming. I’m sorry.”

“Lawmen in Kansas have been looking for those two men for months,” said Pa. “They could sneak up on their own shadows. That’s not what I want to know.”

“I had no idea Mr. Bleak could see,” said Amy. “I’m sorry he fooled me like that.”

“I didn’t know he could see, either, honey,” said Pa. “You have a kind heart. You meant to help a man who had been your enemy. You have nothing to be sorry about. That’s not what I meant, either. I want to know how two children outsmarted those outlaws.”

We told him how. As usual, Amy went first.

“I got Mr. Bleak to dry-fire the Sharps so many times that the cone cracked. So when he fired the loaded rifle, powder blew back into his face.”

“And I got Mr. Anders to fire the other Sharps so many times without cleaning it that the muzzle filled with powder and the rifle lost accuracy. I’m surprised it fired at all,” I told Pa.

Amy added, “Joshua charged Mr. Bleak so I could bite him and Mr. Anders could punch him.”

I said, looking at Amy, “You could have run to Manhattan when the men first arrived.

They didn’t know you were here, but you didn’t want to leave me alone with strangers.”

“I didn’t want them to hurt my brother,” said Amy.

“I didn’t want Mr. Bleak to hurt my sister,” I answered.

Pa blinked away tears. “I got dust in my eyes,” he said. He swallowed.

“I still don’t understand,” said Amy. “How could Mr. Bleak see after the powder blew back into his eyes?”

“I don’t know,” said our pa.

“I do,” I said. They looked at me. “Mr. Anders practiced with a rifle so he knew what to expect. Mr. Bleak had never fired that kind of rifle before he tried to shoot you with it.” Pa said, “It’s more likely that they wanted to kill John Brown. After the city of Lawrence was sacked and an Abolitionist died, Mr. Brown and his sons killed five pro-slavery men. Now, the Border Ruffians want revenge on him.” He shook his head. “Violence begets more violence.”

“I’m glad they didn’t want to shoot you,” I said. “Anyway, Mr. Bleak wasn’t sure how much his weapon would kick. He didn’t know exactly when it would fire.”

I smiled. “So when he pulled the trigger, he closed his eyes.”

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