"The Tall Man"

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

Have you ever had the fear that you were being followed? That sense of foreboding terror from someone or something unknown at hand but just out of sight? A sense of terror compelling you to do something you may not want to do? It is a feeling which can become so overwhelming and suffocating that it threatens to make you lose your very mind. It is a sensation of desperation and madness which keeps eating away at your very soul. It is just such a menacing sentiment which is at the heart of our story.

Meet Stanley Braxton. He is a man thirty-three years of age and of normal mind and stature. Not all that long ago his life was one of mundane existence each day filled with the benign routines and humdrum of an average person in the frontier lifestyle. However now, Stanley Braxton is a man on the run and on the brink of losing his sanity. He has been running for some time now with no real destination in mind, only the desperate want of escape from his nameless unrelenting tormentor.

Yes Stanley Braxton is a man running from something hidden just beyond the dark veil of his failing memory and finds himself driven to the edge of madness while keeping one eye on the path ahead and one eye looking over his shoulder. Desperation, fear and paranoia are his only travel companions now as he makes his lonely passage through the shadows of his mind. But there is an end in sight for Stanley Braxton and his traveling trepidation. He is about to arrive at a place where light and shadows interweave, a place where his frantic sojourn will culminate in its final destination and Stanley Braxton will come face-to-face with the sum of his fears, right here... at Crossroads.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

Several vultures circle in the bright blue sky above the San Toranado Desert. Far below them a man struggles as he runs across the shifting, blistering sands. He stumbles and falls. He picks himself back up frantically, his sunburned face covered in a mix of sweat and sand. He has a wide-eyed look of terror clearly fixed upon his countenance.

'Keep running, Stanley!'

The thought keeps echoing through the mind of Stanley Braxton as he staggers over the burning sands of the San Toranado Desert. He can't remember why, all he knows is that he has to keep going or else he will find him. He couldn't remember how long he'd been on the run. The hot, dry days seemed to blur together in an unending eternity. His skin is burned and red courtesy of the scorching mid-afternoon sun above. His wrists ache and his feet are burn. He licks his cracked, blistered lips and tries to ignore his throat's incessant begging for water.

'I've got to keep moving' he thought. 'Why? Why am I running? What did I do?'

He stumbles again and falls face first into the searing sand.

"Hah!" he pushes himself up from the ground and spits the sand from his mouth in anger. "C'mon Stanley, get yer hide a-movin' boy!"

He staggers to his feet, dusting off the sand from his clothes. He squints hard and looks in the distance. There is a ridge about five hundred feet from him. He attempts a smile and says under his breath "Water's gonna be there, I just know it!"

From somewhere in his soul he musters up the strength to run towards that ridge. As he approaches the lip of the ridge he again stumbles to the desert floor. He continues on crawling, forearm over forearm, the remaining twenty feet to the ridge itself. In his mind's eye he can taste cool water on his tongue as he approaches the precipice. He peers over the edge of the ridge and his eyes widen with excitement.

"I knew it!" he says in a squeaky shout. "I knew it! I knew it! Stan Braxton you did it, you son of a gun!"

Beyond the ridge, about a mile and a half off down in a valley, was the town. It was more than he'd been hoping for. He slid his legs around under himself and began running disjointedly down the ridge toward the town.

"I made it!" he says as he kicks his way thru the sand. "He won't find me now!"

Again in his mind, Stan asks himself the unending question of just who is he running from. He tries to shake the thought from his head as he makes his way towards the town ahead in the distance with no success.

"Why can't I remember?" he thinks to himself as he slowly makes his way along the dunes towards the town. "The last thing I remember was walking in this cursed desert! How did I get here? I was going somewhere… where was I going?" He slams a fist to the side of his head in an effort to further jog his memory. "Think, Stanley, think! I was going somewhere. I was going to… going to… U… U… something. Utah maybe? Was I going to Utah? But why, I don't know anyone in Utah."

By the time he'd reached the outskirts of the town the sun had dipped behind the distant Reynosa Mountains. The onset of dusk had relieved the streets of people as the townsfolk retired to either their homes or their favorite watering hole. There wasn't a sole on the street except the town lamplighter when he staggered into the back door of a livery stable.

He looked around the dingy barn and spied a water pump. He reaches for the pump handle when...

CLICK.

The sound alerts Stanley to the approach of someone opening the stable door. He quickly ducks into a nearby stall. As he backs deeper into the stall he realizes he's not alone. There beside him is a fine palomino horse enjoying some oats.

"Ssssssh boy, now don't you start up, y'hear?" he says to the animal as he slouches down into a corner of the stall. The animal seems to ignore its new stablemate and continues eating. He peers through the stall's boards with a good view of the door in his sights. As he huddles down low in the stall he rubs his aching wrists and watches as two men walk into the stable.

"I'm tellin' ya, it was the damndest thing you ever heard of!" the first man said. He was a big burly man about five foot ten, wearing a thick brown leather apron and gloves. He was balding on top but had big porkchop sideburns which met up with his bushy moustache. He was clearly a blacksmith but the other man was dressed in the clothes of a Arizona Ranger. He was of a rugged stature standing about six foot tall with a thick black moustache curled at the ends. Stanley's eyes followed the men as they walked over to a small workshop area.

"It's a damn shame that she died though. It's been over a year now and her mother's still mighty torn up about it. Anyways, last I seen they both they were on their way to Yuma. That was a couple months ago, I reckon" said the blacksmith.

'Yuma? Could it be that's where I was going too?' thought Braxton excitedly.

"That's what Marshal Benson said as well" says the Ranger. "Maybe I just missed them in my travel down here. They're probably already back there by now."

"Yessirree, it was a downright shame. Glad they got him though" the blacksmith said as he grabbed a pair of saddle straps from the wall where they hung. "I wouldn't want to be him if he ever shows his face here again. You can put that in the bank."

"Yes... well... if I could just have those straps I'll be on my way back to Arizona. How much do I owe you?" the scout said.

"Two dollars, sir", says the smithy.

The lawman dug into a small leather pouch at his side and retrieved two silver dollar pieces and handed them to the blacksmith.

"Thank ya kindly sir" said the smith as he slapped a meaty hand on the officer's broad back. The pair walked on out of the stable leaving Stanley Braxton alone with his new four-legged friend once again.

"Yuma... Yuma...that sound very... familiar" he said to himself. "Yeah, I'm sure that's it! Yuma, Arizona. I've gotta get to Yuma before...before he finds me." Stanley pauses at the statement. "But who is he? Who is it that's after me? Why can't I remember anything?"

Stanley slumps back down to a sitting position in the stall, his hands to his face. He searches his mind for memories of anything that might lead him to his current situation. He remembers the desert but not how he got there. He tries to force himself back thru the last several days in an effort to answer the mystery.

"I was on my way to Yuma… I was… walking… no! I had a horse! My horse… it was a… a pinto!" he said under his breath so as to not be found out. "I was riding… riding to Yuma! But why? And why can't I remember who's after me?"

Again he strains his mind's limits for the answers to his questions. He envisions a tall man with piercing blue eyes. 'Who was he? Why is he following me?' he asks himself. The questions keep pounding thru his brain. The pain in his head seems to be increasing.

He gets to his feet and walks to the open stable door. He slowly sticks his head out and looks around. Satisfied that the amount of street activity was still low enough to provide him with unseen passage, he walks out into the street and makes his way towards the boardwalk on the right side of the road.

As he walks down the boardwalk at a fairly brisk pace, he pulls his hat down further on his brow, trying to make himself invisible. It seemed to work as the few passersby never even look at him. He steps very lightly as to muffle any sound of his own footsteps. With each silent step he takes he shifts his eyes around, watching for anyone who may be watching him. He rubs his still aching wrists and blinks his eyes in an effort to relieve his headache. He approaches Hank Mooney's Last Chance Saloon and pauses for a moment. He can hear the music and laughter of the crowd inside and peers thru the joint's large front window.

"Bang! Bang! You're dead!" a voice shouts behind him.

Without hesitation Stanley Braxton spins on his heels and in one fluid movement brings his hand down to his hip and grabs… nothing but air.

'No!' his mind shouts as his eyes now focus on the source of the noise. Two young boys are playing gunfighter in the street right behind him. They don't even see Braxton as they continue their childish gunplay down the street.

"Damn kids" he mutters under his breath.

He looks down at his empty hand. He feels an eerie familiarity like a distant memory trying to break through. He rubs his thumb along the tips of his fingers then quickly looks around the immediate scene for anyone who may have now noticed him. He sees a young couple passing by about fifteen feet away. The amorous pair is obviously more interested in each other than anything else going on at the moment as they meander on by him without incident. He quickly ducks down a back alley beside the Grand National Hotel, stopping under the light from a side window. He grinds his teeth in frustration, the stress of this whole ordeal taking a measure of toll on his psyche. The pain in his head jolts him, sending his eyes rolling.

"I'm losing my mind!" he says in a hushed cry. "I don't know where I am, I don't know how I got here. I'm running from someone and I don't even know who it is or why they're after me!"

He hangs his head in his hands.

A few moments pass and he regains his composure. He makes his way down the alley and finds a carriage house at the rear attached to the adjoining building. He also notices that its doors still open.

"Well at least something's going my way" he says with a twinge of sarcasm. He ducks inside and finds a nice cozy hayloft where he decides to settle in for the night.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

While Stanley Braxton drifts off into sweet relieving slumber, his mind wanders, his subconscious spilling out visions of himself riding a black and white pinto horse through the night. The pair gallops full tilt through a heavily wooded area. His heart is pounding with the thundering of his steed's hoof beats across the wooded plain. The wind rushes against his face as his eyes are tearing up from its force. It's a mad dash for freedom; the freedom of his very soul. The pair continues their race through the woods and eventually into a clearing. In the distance he sees an object standing alone in the darkened grassland. He knows he must reach it for his very freedom depends upon it. He spurs his pony on as never before. With their energy at such a heightened state, it's almost as if they might just take to the air at any moment. As he approaches the object, he begins to slow his horse's flight. They slow to a trot as they arrive. Now he sees the compelling object for what it truly is:

A tombstone.

He halts his stallion in front of the grim monument. He dismounts and walks over to the memorial. His eyes are wide with horror as he drops to his knees. There's one name upon the engraved epitaph:

Stanley A. Braxton.

With tears streaming down his terror-stricken face, he angrily jerks his six-gun from its leather and aims it at the stone marker. His teeth gnash and his hand trembles as he sights the gun in on the gravestone. But before he can squeeze off, a shot, a heavy hand slams down upon his right shoulder from behind. Startled, Braxton turns his head and looks up into the face of his assailant.

He is a tall man, perhaps six foot or better, his face partially shadowed by a wide-brimmed hat, his eyes thin and squinting but with a steely stare. Something is gleaming from the man's chest, the radiance blinding Stanley momentarily as he blocks the light by raising a hand to his eyes. He can barely see the man's face. The face slowly becomes clearer as if coming into focus. The figure's eyes continue a squinting stare which seems to go right thru Stanley's soul. A wooden match shifts back and forth in his mouth as the tall man's lips pull back into a bleak smile.

"No!"

Stanley sits bolt upright, startled from his sleep. He is soaked with sweat and short of breath as if he'd just been running a footrace. He shudders and draws in three deep breaths as if trying to exorcise the demons of his sleep. He rubs his face, scrubbing away the perspiration as well as the sleep from his eyes with his sunburned and calloused hands. He takes one more deep breath and then cocks his head back and forth to loosen up the kinks of sleeping on an uncomfortable bed of straw and wooden planks.

The dust dances in the slender sunbeams as the morning sun begins to peek between the clapboards of the carriage house. Despite the nightmares of his slumber Stanley Braxton still doesn't know why he's on the run or why someone is after him. However he does realize one thing.

It's time for him to go.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

He pokes his head out the door and looks around the street scene once again. There's a lazy feel to the morning on this day. Folks seem in no hurry to get to their destinations. He too feels a bit more at ease today. The pain in his head has lessened greatly. The sense of urgency he'd grown almost accustomed to seems to have dissipated and he actually sees the town for what it truly is; a quaint little berg full of the type of people you'd likely call friends. He slowly surveys the scene, noting the peacefulness of their being.

A man escorts an elderly woman across the mud-soaked lane. A barber sweeps the dust off the boardwalk in front of his shop. There's that same amorous couple from last night, now making their way in their buckboard to a funfilled picnic. In the middle of the road some children are playing outlaws again. Friends greeted friends with outstretched hands and smiling faces.

Maybe just maybe they might be his friends someday.

Stanley Braxton steps out into the street and begins walking toward the south end of town. He spies a medicinal tonic peddler selling his wares in front of the Last Chance Saloon. A little further down the avenue he sees a group of women espousing their views on the Suffrage Movement to anyone who'd listen. There's the mayor, glad-handing the voting public for a favorable outcome at the polls. He allows himself a slight smile as he ambles down the bustling boulevard.

As he passes by Tilly's Hard Wares, his wandering eye catches a man, rather tall in stature, his head and face hidden in the shadow of his wide brimmed hat as he leans against the hitching rail in front of the Land & Survey Office.

The man was positioned approximately at the 11 o'clock position from Stanley as he walked. Stanley quickly changed his path and made a right hand turn, heading into Grogan's Billiard Hall.

The interior of the establishment was dimly lit and very dingy. There were several billiards tables divided into two long rows and beyond them was the bar. There were only five men in the place. Two men were playing at a far table, one was playing alone about halfway down the second row and the fourth was sitting on a stool against the far right wall. The fifth man was the barkeep and he was busy cleaning the glasses behind the bar with his back to the proceedings.

Stanley stood in the doorway at an angle where he was just out of sight of the stranger but could still see him. He looked out the door at the tall man. Stanley's heart begins to pound faster. His throat becomes very dry. The painful pounding in his head had returned.

He could tell that the man stood about six-foot-three or four and was of a slim but rugged build, likely in his late thirties or early forties. Nothing distinctive stood out about the man but Stanley's gut told him there was a certain alarming quality about him which drew Stanley's attention. He leans back into the hall and, while trying to look inconspicuous, glances around the hall once again. Satisfied that he's not drawn any attention to himself, he then looks out the door craning his neck in an effort to see the tall man. He rubs his aching wrists and blinks hard. He squints trying to see the man's face but the man's head is tilted down and still hidden by the wide brim of his black hat.

"C'mon let's see yer face, pal" he says with an anticipation so palpable you could almost taste it. "C'mon, c'mon!"

As if his plea was heard, the tall man slowly raises his head. Stanley gasps in shock and snaps himself back inside the hall. He shuts his eyes tightly and notices that he is trembling now. He tries to calm himself.

"It can't be!" he says nervously. It was terrifyingly ironic that the first thing he's recognized in days turns out to be the one thing he never imagined he'd ever see… the face of the man in his dream.

"It's – it's him!" he says under his breath with terrified incredulity. "But how's that possible? It was a just a dream… just a damned dream! He can't be real!"

His mind races as fast as his heart, trying to find a plausible explanation for how his slumber's specter could materialize into flesh and blood.

"That's just rubbish!" he snorts as reason returns to calm him down.

Stanley once more sticks his head around the doorframe and looks at the man. The stranger is now looking side to side up and down the street as if searching for someone. Stanley again swallows hard as his breathing becomes more rapid. His head throbs with painful pulses. He returns his gaze back inside the pool hall. He shakes his head in disbelief.

"Stop this foolishness, Stan ol' boy!" he said, his voice harsh. "You're imaginin' things! There's a perfectly good reason about all this. I've got things all twisted up. I didn't see him in my dream first and then he came to life, no, no, no. I'd seen him somewhere before, perhaps he's the one chasing me, yeah, that's it. I'd seen him before, that's what happened, yessirree. I dreamed about him cuz he's the one that's been after me all this time! But why? I still don't know why."

He wipes his brow with the back of his hand and glances once again at the tall man.

"He's... gone? Where'd he go?" he says in hushed doubt. He blinks hard twice just to make sure of what he sees. He quickly shifts his gaze up and down the street in rapid succession trying to find the tall man to no avail.

Stanley steps out onto the boardwalk walks at a brisk pace down the street. Gone now are his pointed acknowledgements, his cute annotations of the various citizens replaced by a stark realization of his current predicament. Now his focus is on one thing and one thing only.

"I need to leave here," he says as he makes his way to the southern edge of town, "I don't know why but I've got to get to Yuma. Whatever this is that's going on here will end if I can get there. Sure as rain, I know it!"

He turns the corner and stops in his tracks. He swiftly ducks into the open door leading to the lobby of Hannaford's Lounge & Hotel. He shifts his eyes quickly to the desk clerk who apparently is so engrossed in today's newspaper that he can't even spare the time to notice. Stanley then rapidly slides along the front wall to the far window along the streetside. He peers thru the open velvet curtains to the street outside. Across the street is the tall man again. This time Stanley takes the time to examine the man more closely. He's dressed in denim shirt, jeans and a black overcoat with silver buttons. There's an empty holster on his right hip which is tied down to his thigh giving Stanley the notion that it's already been pulled and at the ready under his coat. He's leaning against a hitching post with his left hand on his chin and his right hand concealed inside the overcoat. Stanley's pulse is now pounding so hard at his temples that he fears his head will burst. He leans back out from the window as his breathing quickens.

'It's him,' he thinks as he looks back out the glass. 'What does you want, tall man?'

The tall man leaves his post and begins calmly walking up the street. Stanley watches him walk out of his line of vision and breathes a long sigh of relief as he does so. He decides that his interests would best be served by staying out of sight as much as possible.

The lobby of the hotel adjoins a gaming joint called "Dobber's Lucky Strike" via a large opening off to the left. Stanley walks thru the lobby and into the Lucky Strike warily eyeing the patrons for the tall man. He makes his way thru the activities of the room and exits thru the door on the opposite side without drawing any notice. It exits to an intersecting street of the main avenue.

Once thru the door the strong aroma of coffee and eggs and bacon hit him flush. His mouth watered at the prospect of filling his long empty stomach. Stanley noticed the smells seemed to be emanating from a small building across the street. Sally Ann's was the name painted onto the hanging wooden sign above the door. Stanley reached into his pockets with both hands. They returned empty. He walked around to the back of the building where a window was open. On the sill was a freshly baked pie, apple he judged by its scent. He slowly walked towards the dessert and reached out with his hands.

Suddenly another pair of hands removed the pie from its resting place just before he reached it.

"No!" he says under his breath.

Disappointment and worry now clouds his face.

"Can I help you?" says a calm female voice.

Stanley wheels around and sees a young woman, about thirty, standing in the back alley. She's about five foot two with blonde hair and blue eyes. She's wearing a red and white petticoat and dress. On her face is a look of concern not anger. Perhaps she hadn't seen him try to pilfer the pie. She caught him by such surprise that he thought he'd best escape rather than explain so he dashes out the alley.

"Poor soul" the woman says to herself in a sad tone.

As Stanley races out onto South St. he looks around hurriedly. His gaze abruptly settles on the tall man as he walks down the street towards him. He is glancing side-to-side searching the scene for something or rather someone.

Stanley turns up his shirt collar and begins walking briskly down the boardwalk drifting stealthily in and out among the patrons on the walkway. He walks a block north on South St then turns east onto Second St. He ducks into Wilson's Granary Store and looks thru the front window up the street towards where the tall man had been walking.

"What? No!" he says in a hushed panic.

Now standing in the street with the tall man is the woman from the alley behind Sally Ann's. They are having a discussion as they both look down the avenue in his direction. She raises her hand and points to the granary then smiles a sad smile at the tall man. The tall man leaves her behind and begins walking up the street towards the granary. His pace slows as he approaches the front of the store. Stanley positions himself against the doorframe, his body hidden from view on the street. He cranes his neck to look out the front store window as the tall man passes by.

The tall man stops dead in his tracks.

The man then turns only his head and looks directly at Stanley. In his mouth is a wooden match.

"No!" he says under his breath as he ducks further back from the window. "No, no, no, no no!"

He sticks his head out to look at the man again. The man is still looking at him from the middle of the street. The man fixes his hat further down on his brow, turns sharply in place and begins walking towards the store's entrance.

Stanley could feel his heart in his throat. Beads of sweat now stream his forehead. The stranger would be upon him soon. In a burst of fear and adrenaline Stanley dashes to the back of the store and out a rear doorway into a backlot between Second St and Third St. He dashes towards a toolshed in the center of the backlot, slipping around a corner of it. He presses his back up against the shed and looks around quickly. He's got a good view of the alleyway behind the granary and a good retreat plan because behind him is the rear of several buildings which face along South St. He knows he can make it down one of several alleys and possibly give his pursuer the slip in the process.

He turns back to watch for the tall man. He doesn't wait long as the man soon appears in the alley. He pauses there, putting a cigarette to his lips. He calmly looks the scene over as if taking in the morning's sunshine. He steps out from the alleyway and walks slowly towards the shed where Stanley lies in hiding. Seeing the man's path, Stanley quickly moves counter clockwise around the shed and then scampers down an alley to the east which dumps him back onto Main St between Hannaford's and Gruden's.

Stanley's eyes dart up and down Main St. He can feel his shirt wet with perspiration against his back. He begins walking south towards Front St trying his best to appear casual and inconspicuous. The block and a half to Front St is covered in a mere couple of minutes. He slowly looks back up Main St and sees the tall man arrive on the boardwalk in front of Hannaford's. Panic grips Stanley's heart tighter as he gasps aloud. He searches for an escape route but none looks promising. Front St runs east to west perpendicular to intersecting Main St. Along Front St are a few homes, the schoolhouse and...

DONG!

The church.

DONG!

The church's bell begins it tolling for the noontime hour. Stanley stares westward up Front St to the church.

'Sanctuary!' he thought excitedly.

He begins running the block or so to the church and then stops abruptly. There on the steps of the church is the woman from the kitchen. She stands there looking at him with sadness in her eyes. Stanley glances back down towards the Main St intersection and sees the tall man round the corner onto Front St in his steady straightforward pace. He turns back to the church in time to see the front door shut, the woman is gone.

He dashes up the stairs and both the doors swing open wide as if The Almighty Himself were inviting him into his home. Stanley rushes inside and the doors close quietly behind him. He races over to one of two windows along the front of the church.

He sees the tall man arrive outside. The stoic stranger stands silently in the center of Front St just staring at the church doors.

"He won't come in here you know" comes a soft voice behind him.

Stanley wheels around and his widen. It is the same woman he saw in the alley once again. He is struck by the extraordinary misery on her face. It's a sorrowful, mournful expression that one usually exudes over incredibly grievous loss. He tries to compose himself before speaking.

"You! I saw you talking with him! You know who he is?" asks Stanley swallowing hard.

"Yes" she says with a heavy sigh. "I know who he is. He's waiting for you to come to him."

Stanley almost smiles with disbelief as he speaks.

"Well then he'll be waiting until Hell feels Jack Frost's icy touch!" he says in nervous defiance. He quickly glances back out the window at the mysterious tall man standing quiet and patient in the middle of the road. Stanley notes that although people seem to pass by none take notice of his unusual stance.

"You need to go with him, Stanley" she says gently.

Stanley eyes her warily.

"Do I... do I know you, lady?" he asks, his mind desperately clawing to uncover any hints of the woman's identity from his faulty memory.

"You did once" she replies tenderly, a hint of a smile on her lips. "That was long ago, I'm afraid. The Stanley Braxton I knew was a good, kindhearted man."

"Look lady, I don't know what kind of crazy game is going on here but – "

"Oh, it's no game, Stanley" she says with a slight chuckle in her voice. "No, this event has come about by your own doing I'm afraid."

"You talk in riddles, woman! If you know me than you know I don't stand for such foolishness!" he says sternly.

"Yes, I know that all too well, Stanley" she responds. "You never did grasp the truth easily."

"Well the only truth I know right now is that that man out there is after me and I don't know why, do you?"

There's a long awkward pause. She stare into Stanley's eyes with a gaze that seems to search his soul. All too quickly the moment is gone and she answers his query with three simple words.

"You know why."

He cocks his head and stares at her for a brief moment as if she had just imparted to him the wisdom of the universe. A sad understanding washes over him and he gasps in shock.

He remembers.

A tear trickles down Stanley's cheek and past his quivering lip. He stares at the woman with a remorseful look about him. Then a strange calmness seems to wash over his face. He closes his eyes as more tears flow down.

"Sarah" he said in a quiet tone. "But...how? You're..."

The woman smiles thoughtfully.

"Oh my sweet Sarah, what did I do?" he whispers.

As the emotions wash over him he finally breaks down, falling to his knees before her as the memories begin flooding back. He sobs heavily into his hands.

"Oh god, Sarah, I didn't mean to do it…" he cries. "When I saw the two of you together there at the river, I couldn't bear it any longer! I didn't mean for you to get hurt, I only meant to kill him so we could be together, can't you see that? I wanted him gone so it would just be us again like it was before... before he came. That's all I ever wanted. I loved you so much"

"I know, Stanley" she says with an soft understanding tone, "I know"

"What should I do, Sarah? Tell me please! What am I to do now?" he pleads on his knees.

"There is only one thing you can do, Stanley" she says in a reassuring voice. "You must go with him."

"Please tell me... who is he? Why is he after me?" he begs thru his tears.

"He is a good man," she says with a new steadiness in her tone. "He's an Arizona Ranger, Stanley. He's come a long way to find you. He just wants to take you back. He promised me he'd just take you back."

"Nooooooooo!" he screams in torment, his hands clutched over his face.

The huge double oak doors once again swing open by unseen hands. Sunlight floods in bathing Stanley in a golden glow upon the floor. He wipes the tears from his eyes and slowly rises to his feet. He peers out the doors into the bright sunshine. As his eyes adjust to the sunlit landscape, he sees the tall man still waiting patiently in the middle of the street. He doesn't smile, scowl or emit any other discernable emotion, just a stoic visage of patience.

Stanley looks over at Sarah with a great sorrow in his gaze. "I..."

"It's okay Stanley" she says with a touch of happiness in her voice. "I forgive you"

Stanley nods slightly and turns back to the doorway. He slowly walks out onto the first step. He turns back to Sarah, who remains inside the darkened hall. She smiles sadly, tenderly tilting her head to the side. Stanley smiles back thru the tears trickling down his face. He turns back towards the tall man and walks down the steps and into the street.

Sarah seems to glide to the open doors then stops, watching the scene ahead of her.

"Goodbye Stanley and I pray that God has mercy on your soul" she says, standing solemnly in the entrance to the church. The doors slowly shut upon her with a finality that sends a wave of intense grief throughout Stanley's body. He nods his head as if to cleanse himself of the feeling, then turns and walks out into the street to the waiting tall man.

Inside the church there is a slow gentle wind. Its whistling sounds like that of a woman weeping. A door opens in the back of the room.

"Hello?" a loud voice bellows.

Reverend Jacob Hammon emerges from a vestibule door. He enters the room and looks around. Seeing no one he turns around to return back to his study. "Humph. I could've sworn I'd heard voices out here." he says scratching his head.

In the street Stanley looks into the tall man's eyes. He sees no emotion in them. They are just blue, cold and uncaring.

"I'm ready to go now", says Stanley noticing that the pain in his wrists has increased again. He rubs them forcefully before speaking once more.

"Which way?" he asks.

The tall man doesn't speak instead he raises his right hand and points to the north up the avenue. Stanley looks in that direction and sees the street is bustling with activity once again. No one is paying him or the tall man any mind as they march up the street. Stanley remembers the events which have led him to this point.

Sarah was a young woman Stanley had loved for many years. They courted for over three years. He planned on marrying her as soon as he could afford to but before that day would come she'd met another man.

An Arizona Ranger.

He looks over at the tall man walking beside him. He closes his eyes with the stark realization that the man who is taking him back is the man who stole his lovely Sarah. He remembers the night he found the two of them together down by the river. He couldn't understand how she could spurn his love after all those years. He stepped out from the shadows and confronted the lovers.

Stanley swore that he'd see the man dead before he'd let him have her. Stanley pulled his pistol and the lawman grabbed his hand. A fight ensued and during the struggle the gun discharged. The combatants broke off the battle and looked themselves over for a wound. Satisfied that they were not hit they start to clash yet again when a low moan distracted them.

There lay Sarah on the ground, a seeping blood stain upon her blouse.

The lawman was to her side first and cradled her in his arms as she drew her last breath. The grief stricken lover held his dying sweetheart and cried. Stanley stood by in shock at what had happened.

Suddenly he dashes for his horse and within seconds he's thundering thru the woods knowing that to remain would mean incarceration at best and dancing at the end of a rope at the worst. His steed thunders across the wooded plains carrying Stanley into the night, never to return to the town where he'd loved Sarah.

That was the extent of his remembrances. He still cannot recollect how he came to be running in the desert and now he was about to return to those same scorching sands enroute to his final fate.

"I didn't mean to kill her" he says to the tall man. "You know that right?"

The tall man continues his stride, steady and purposeful, never even acknowledging Stanley's outburst.

"You've got to believe me! I loved her! I couldn't live without her!" he says looking to the tall man for any response. None however, would be forthcoming. They continued their march to the northern edge of town.

At the entrance to the town Stanley asks the tall man why he won't answer him. The tall man never even looks at Stanley but instead grabs him by the left elbow and shoves him forward into the desert.

The hours pass by in what seems to be an eternity for Stanley now. His throat is dry again. The sun's heat once again bakes his leathered skin.

"Can I have some water?" he asks.

There is no reply from the tall man.

"Please, mister, I don't wanna die out here in this godforsaken stretch of sand! Gimme some water!"

The tall man stops in his tracks. He glances over at Stanley and his stare sends a chill down Stanley's spine. The tall man slowly shakes his head indicating 'no'. He then shoves Stanley onward and they begin thru the desert once more.

Mile by mile, hour by hour the pair traverse across the burning sands. Finally Stanley drops to his knees in sheer exhaustion.

"I can't go another step" he says in a raspy dry voice. "I need wa...water..."

The tall man grabs him by his collar and points to something in the distance. Stanley squints but can't quite make the object out. He struggles to his feet and begins awkwardly staggering towards the blotch on the desert's horizon.

'Is that... a water hole?' he thinks to himself. 'It looks like a water hole!'

When the pair gets to about a hundred yards of the object Stanley begins running, faltering every few steps but quickly righting himself and rushing onward.

He finally gets to the site and falls on his knees. He stares down not at a luscious waterhole but the weathered remains of a man's body lying in the sand. The corpse's head and face is covered by his hat which is partially swallowed up by the shifting sands. Stanley kneels there too exhausted to be shocked now as the tall man walks up behind him. On the dead man's chest pinned to his shirt is a silver five star badge. On the badge are the words "Arizona Ranger". Stanley's body shudders with a stifled chuckle of irony. He looks back and up into the face of the tall man. The horrible and unbelievable truth hits Stanley like a punch to the gut.

"It's you, isn't it?" he says in a demanding tone. "You're another ghost just like Sarah, aren't you?"

The tall man's eyes narrow but he doesn't answer. Stanley shakes his head angrily and shouts the query again.

"Answer me, mister...that's you, ain't it?"

Stanley stumbles to his feet in anger and grabs the tall man by his coat with both fists.

"I want an answer you silent son of a..."

Before he can finish his sentence, the tall man slaps Stanley's hands away and points to the dead man's hat. Stanley furrows his brow in confusion but kneels down on one knee beside the body. He looks back up at the tall man who points at the hat again emphatically.

"Okay...okay... let's see what under that godforsaken hat...!" he says as he reaches down. He lifts the sand covered hat up from the body. He puts a hand to his mouth in abject horror. The skin had shriveled and tightened over the head giving an eerie emaciated look to the corpse. Stanley looked at the dead man's neck. The blood had all dried up but there was a gaping wound in the middle of the throat, the type of wound made by pistol shot.

"Is that why..." he asks turning back to look up at the tall man. The tall man then reaches up to his kerchief around his neck and pulls it down revealing a horrific scarred hole in his throat, the same wound as is on the corpse.

"NO!" shouts Stanley as he slams the hat back down over the dead man. He then closes his eyes tightly and whispers to himself.

"This isn't happening. I'm still dreaming. I gonna wake up any second now! "

Stanley then feels a weighty hand upon his shoulder. The hand tightens its grip on Stanley's shirt and yanks him to his feet. Stanley is now face to face with what he believes to a real life ghost.

"If that's you and you're dead, how the hell are you still here? That's not possible! I must be crazy from the heat, that's it!"

Now for the first time the tall man displays a hint of emotion as his eyes flare with what appears to be... excitement?

The tall man points to another spot approximately two hundred feet further away. Stanley pauses for a moment. He doesn't know if it's fear or anticipation that causes him to hesitate. He then slowly makes his way to the object in the distance. Stanley gets to within a few feet of it and his knees buckle driving him down into the burning sand.

"No!" he screams to the blistering heavens above.

There in front of him, lying twisted in the engulfing sands was another body... the body of Stanley A. Braxton. There is a large wound to the skull as if struck by a blunt object. The corpse's hands were still shackled at the wrists. A revolver lay just inches from his grasp. There is a large rock barely peeking out from beneath the sands.

"No! It's not fair! I was free! I was free! All I had to do was get away! No!" Stanley howls in agony, the agony of a soul stained by an unbearable sin.

The whole truth behind his strange odyssey becomes crystal clear now.

He remembers how the tall man, relentlessly hunted him down after he fled the scene of Sarah's murder. Stanley was caught and sentenced to die in Yuma Prison for the murder of his beloved Sarah. But Stanley managed to escape with the unplanned help of a frail prison guard who now travels this country bound to a wheelchair.

The Ranger, Sarah's true love, swore on Sarah's grave he'd go to Hell and back to find Stanley and bring him back to Yuma Prison to pay for his heinous crime.

He remembers how the tall man found him here and was bringing him back across the San Toranado Desert when they got lost in a wicked sandstorm and wandered in circle for hours before their horses died from exhaustion. They continued on their sojourn to Yuma on foot.

He remembers how he waited for the tall man to let his guard down and when he finally did, he jumped him, taking his gun, shooting him in the neck and leaving him to die under that blazing sun.

He remembers how he felt sure he was finally free but his freedom ended when he stumbled and struck his head on a rock. Stanley chuckles slightly at the memory.

"The only goddamned rock in this whole flamin' sea of sand" he says under his breath.

He succumbed to his injury and exhaustion, never regaining consciousness and dying where he fell.

Yes, Stanley A. Braxton remembers it all now... and wishes he didn't.

Stanley kneels in the hot sand, his hands now covering his face and cries now knowing that Hell awaits him.

The tall man stands silently vigilant as he looks down upon the sobbing soul of Mr. Stanley A. Braxton...

...and he smiles.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~[ EPILOGUE ]~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

Crime and punishment. Justice and retribution. These are concepts that come into play whenever men foolishly cross that thin line between good and evil.

The long arm of the law reached beyond the grave for Stanley Braxton in order to give him his just desserts. Such a fate surely awaits those who choose evil as their preferred road of travel along life's limited journey.

Stanley Braxton was a man given to violence in life and fear and trepidation in death. He sought to outrun his sin in the afterlife but he forgot one small point of fact. Justice is indiscriminate in nature and enduring by necessity. The scales of justice do not adhere to a calendar or any other manmade measure of time. It is eternal and relentless in its duty to serve its decree.

Lady Justice may be blind but she is also patient.

Mr. Stanley Braxton is just the latest soul to sadly discover that fact as the blistering sands of time finally ran out for him here... at Crossroads.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O