Chapter 1

A Wanted Man

It was a bright afternoon filled with the melodious singing of birds harmonized with a slight howl of wind through the streets. It was rare to hear the sound of birds singing this time of year in Brookvale due to the arid conditions, but the beautiful mixture of sound created a perfect ambiance for the walk to Sarah's home for dinner, even though Jack preferred the cover darkness.

Brookvale was just north of an oasis of luscious greenery, vivid aromas, an array of Jack-rabbits, tortoises, ground squirrels, roadrunners, and any other thirsty creature that drug itself in from the dry surrounding habitat.

It was illegal to build any structures in the oasis to preserve its resources; consequently, the city itself was dry and void of much, if any, vegetation. Aside from the blurred whispers of the passerby, the city usually sat in an eerie silence.

Jack had been courting Sarah for 8 months, but still felt his dark heart skip a beat when he looked at her. He lived in darkness, constantly looking over his shoulder due to his distrust of others. He was almost lost in the painful void in his heart, until an unforgettable day when he met what he considered to be the epitome of a woman.

Sarah Jones. Jack thought while striding along vigorously. I can't wait to see her. It has been a long 4 weeks.

"Sale today!" Shouted Steven Weston, the owner of Brookvale's general store. As a crowd of people lingered outside of the general store. "Everything thirty percent off!"

Steven was a kind man, and was extremely passionate about his customers. He had the best prices on sack rice and sugar for hundreds of miles, and knew Jack as a regular.

"Jack!" Steven shouted as he noticed Jack walking behind those lingering outside of the store. Jack walked down the steps and made his way to Jack. "Good to see you. It seems like it has been quite a while."

"4 weeks." Jack responded.

"Short as always." Steven laughed as he clapped his hand repeatedly on Jack's shoulder. Inwardly, Jack cringed at his touch. A couple months back a rather boisterous man attempted to worm his way into Jack's good graces by being too friendly with a loud manor of speech and a proclivity to be too touchy feely. Instead of completing the kill to collect the 7,000 bill bounty with the usual one surprise shot to the head, Jack emptied his chamber on him, smiling.

Jack hated physical contact in general. He had spent a dark, lonely life avoiding people and his resentment for the evil deeds of men grew. To Jack, everyone was suspected of ill intentions or wrongdoing, but this man, Steven Weston, was a pure and decent individual found innocent in the court of Jack's eyes.

"Is there anything you need today Jack?" Steven said.

"No. Jack said as Steven nudged him toward the general store by with his large lanky hand on his shoulder. "I don't need-"

"Nonsense Jack!" Steven sounded excitedly. "Why, I am certain that I have something in there with your name on it." Steven placed his open hand on Jack's back and continued as he gently nudged him toward the store.

I might as well go in. He ain't letting up. Jack thought as he submitted himself to shop in the general store and inched forward, his boots creaking up the wooden steps onto the aged cedar porch.

"You see this new door Jack? It's one hundred percent oak. Just had this one imported in." Steven beamed while running his rough hand down the smooth finish of the finely made door. "The old one finally gave in during that hard rain a few weeks ago. I have been eying this baby for years."

The door was a soft brown with an amazingly bright sheen, even a professional would marvel at the level of its craft. There was a stained glass window placed in the center of the upper door with swirled blue and purple designs surrounding a picture of a brown chest, also stained into the eloquent window. The golden doorknob, somewhat mesmerizing seemed to call out in a whisper begging to be turned. The door was far more luxurious than the rest of the aged building and appeared out of place.

"The window was hand crafted by a man in the city of Barnesville. I don't remember his name but he was a nice fellow…talented too." Steven continued as he made a fist and rapping on the door twice with his knuckles, perhaps to illustrate its quality.

Jack found it somewhat odd that Steven was so friendly with him. Jack had never given even an extra word of conversation outside of basic responses to Steven. Yet, through the years Steven always treated Jack like a life-long friend. Although Jack would never admit it, there was some comfort in these types of interactions.

"Well Jack? Are you going to feel the oak?" Steven said as he grinned from ear to ear.

Jack's hands were similar to the hands of a lumberjack who had worked hard day in and day out for 20 years; tough, rugged, callused and sure. Jack had to make his own way since he was a child, fighting for survival with no one to take care of him. He had always been sedulous, and his hands were evidence of that.

Jack placed his hand on the door truly uninterested in what type of wood it was made of. "It's nice." He squeezed out impatiently, attempting to spare Steven's feelings from his disinterest.

How did I get roped into this? I just want to go see Sarah. Jack thought, as the lavish oak door was opened accompanied by the light ring of a bell attached to its top.

A long counter rested at one corner of the store with a countertop made of warm cherrywood gleaming softly in the afternoon rays of the setting sun, gently cradling an aged bronze cash register with tall round buttons that clicked loudly with even the slightest press. The shelves behind the bar were nearly overwhelmed by the massive amount of alcohol, perfumes, tobacco, and boxes of cigars that pressed on their labored wall anchors.

"Just re-stocked and ready to sell." Steven said as he gestured to the over-filled shelves behind the bar. "If you look down the center run here you will figure out I carry pretty much anything you could ever need." Steven made his way behind the counter and sat on a tall wooden stool near the cash register.

Maybe there is something in here for Sarah. Jack thought. It might be a good idea to buy her something. But what?

Jack began taking inventory in the heavily packed store crowded with shelving along every wall. Boxes, barrels, crates, and tables were tightly pressed together throughout the store filled with coffee beans, spices, oatmeal, baking powder, hard candy and dried beans. 50 pound bags of woven cotton sacks of flour, sugar, and burlap sacks of rice lined the lower left wall, all stacked at least 8 bags high. Patient medicines were all stacked on shelves in blue boxes, which rested beside soaps, toiletries, and a few questionable elixirs.

Wow, he wasn't kidding. Jack thought, actually somewhat impressed. But what can I get Sarah? He continued looking.

The store also included cloth of all kinds, sewing supplies, silk, clothing, hats and shoes all arranged in neat lines that looked to take hours to arrange. Rifles stood out to Jack in the midst of a wide variety of guns available, all hanging on the back wall. Pots and pans, dishes, and farming equipment were so tightly packed into the racks that the wall behind them was completely hidden.

The bell on the door sounded as a broad-shouldered man stepped into the general store carrying a large brown sack. He wore a smoke colored trench coat with a ratty brown leather Stetson. His mustache was curled on each side, sitting atop a counterfeit smile. His fingertips were splotched with black ink and he looked as if he hadn't slept in days. It was well known around Brookvale that this was a man who found joy in the misfortune of others and would do anything for a good scoop.

"How you doing there Jimmy?" Steven said as he groaned, raising himself from the stool. Jack recognized that Steven wasn't as young as he used to be. "How many did you bring this week?"

"I've got 25 for you today Steven." Jimmy grumbled as he turned the dark brown cloth sack sideways. A large bundle of newspapers thudded harshly against the soft wooden counter. "Front page story is amazing really. It's not every week we get a first person account of a murder. William Hurst was-"

"William Hurst?! The bank manager of Cloverton?" Steven interrupted.

"Can ya let me finish, Steven?" Jimmy's words swung like an axe. "William was shot right between the eyes, standing in the middle of the road right in front of his home."

"I can't believe it!" A customer's voice echoed from the back of the store. "Seemed like a good fella. Dealt with him once on a loan for the farm."

"Well that nice fella apparently had a dark side; a fetish for working over women against their will." Jimmy said proudly, as if this revelation somehow gave him prestige.

"Are you serious?" Steven gasped. "He had always seemed nice to me too." Which wasn't surprising considering Steven had always given everyone the benefit of the doubt, assuming all people are good.

Nice? He put on a good front. Those women he raped didn't think he was nice. That little boy he beat didn't think he was nice. Jack's brow folded in anger. I enjoyed putting that bullet in that dirt bag's head. I wonder what they would say if they found out.

"Gist of the story is that this guy followed William from the bank one day. He was like a dark ominous cloud. Started shouting something about justice and righteous judgment and pulled the trigger. Lucky for us, we were working a story on William to find out what was really behind the wanted poster. We had an investigator tailing him for months." Jack recoiled and clenched his fists before placing them in the pockets of his duster.

"Did your investigator see the murder?" Steven asked.

"Sure did."

"What did he look like?" Jack asked, his voice almost breaking.

"Rough-lookin fella, long hair, big coat." Jimmy scratched his chin. "Curious though. Our man seemed to think it was a demon."

I must be safe if the guy thought I was some kind of demon. Jack thought in relief.

"A demon huh? You think something like that is even real Jack?" Steven picked up a single paper rolled and tied and pointed it at Jack.

"No. That's just fairytales. Everybody knows that."

"I am not so sure these days." Jimmy sighed. "These stories are just…" He placed this thumb and forefinger across his eyes and took a deep breath. "Believe it or not there have been a rise in reports of sightings of demons lately. Some hard-to-believe evidence too. So at this point I wouldn't rule anything out."

"Maybe you need some rest there Jimmy." Steven said laying the paper in front of him and gesturing toward Jack. "Take Jack here, just got back from a 4 week vacation. That sounds like something you need."

"4 weeks…" Lines creased on the corners of Jimmy's eyes as his gaze locked onto Jack's. "Where did you go?"

Steven ran a blade he used to open envelopes through the ties around the paper he held. The paper burst open with a snap, its corners spread out across the table like a majestic bird spreading its wings.

Jack was certain that he'd be found out. His hand slowly slid inside of his duster toward his revolver.

"Look at that." Steven exclaimed slapping his hand beside the paper lying on the table. He read the title. "Gunman strikes again. Prominent banker dead only 4 days after issuance of wanted posters. Identity of gunman to be released via wanted poster this week."

A bead of sweat ran down Jack's brow as he let out a sigh. He wondered if they really knew that he was the killer.

"But why would a wanted poster be issued for a man killing those who the government already wants dead?" Steven wondered. "That just doesn't make much sense to me."

"The investigator reported that this man has been killing women." Jack clinched his fist as his eyes fumed with fury. "They are almost certain at this point that this man has something to do with the disappearances of those women."

"Wow. What a breakthrough." Steven said, very excited.

Lies. Those bastards are framing me. I only kill evil men. I would never harm an innocent woman. Jack thought as his brows clenched openly expressing his frustration.

"What's the matter Jack?" Steven asked.

"Yeah," Jimmy said knowing that Jack was hiding something. "What is wrong, Jack?"

Jack froze for a moment as his thoughts frantically raced in searched for a way out of this conversation; a way to keep from being found out.

"Maybe I caught something on my trip." Jack quivered. "I'm not feeling so hot."

"Speaking of trip," Jimmy said. "Where did you go again?"

Without a moment's notice Jack answered. "I camped in the oasis. I really enjoy sleeping out under the stars."

"Sounds like a great time. You might want to pick up some medicine here in the shop in case of fever. You are sweating pretty badly." Steven said, genuinely worried for Jack's health." Jimmy's convicting stare met Jack's eyes.

"Perhaps you are right." Jack said as he turned and made his way to the medicine rack.

Jimmy's stare was reminiscent of someone playing a difficult game of chess, or perhaps a detective placing the final pieces of an investigation together. Jack stood across the store but close enough to hear Steven and Jimmy's conversation.

"I am telling you. That guy…Jack…that is the killer." Jimmy whispered desperately trying to hide his voice from the room. "Think about it. He matches the description-"

"Oh come on," Steven said aloud. "Jack isn't a killer."

"Shhhh" Jimmy shook his hands in Steven's direction. "He will hear you. I am telling you, my gut says that he is the guy. Either way, we should know today."

"Today?" Steven asked now whispering. Jack cringed.

"Yes. They should be delivering the new wanted posters today and his identity is supposed to be revealed on it. That bastard, Fredrick, gave me every wanted notice but that one to print in the paper. Said he was saving it for his delivery of posters. Our investigator gave me a very specific description of the man. After taking a good look, my money is on Jack." Steven waved off Jimmy's accusation.

Jack heard every word meticulously. His hand was still resting inside his duster on the butt of his gun. To everyone else it looked as if Jack was clenching his stomach due to stomach pain. He reached out and grasped the blue box of medicine with hesitant swiftness. It was time to make a hasty exit.

"I have got to go Steven. More papers to deliver and not much daylight left." Jimmy said as he opened the door. His voice mixed with the pleasant ringing of the bell, "Trust me on this. It's him." Jimmy said lightly above a whisper and he took a moment to study Jack one last time.

A man passed Jimmy entering the door holding a small stack of colonial yellow paper wearing a pair of khaki dress slacks with a pressed white button up shirt.

"Fredrick." Jimmy grumbled as he left.

"Jimmy." Fredrick returned coldly.

Jack placed his medicine on the front counter. "Will that be it for you Jack?" Steven asked. "You know, Jimmy had the craziest idea about you." Steven motioned with his hand in Jack's direction.

Jack was desperate to redirect the conversation. If I am not careful Steven will figure it out too. Jack had quickly realized that he hadn't located anything for Sarah.

"Any idea what a woman might like?" Jack redirected the conversation.

"Oh." Steven seemed caught off guard. "You and Sarah still at it huh? If you ask me, she is a great girl. You might want to marry that one."

"You may be right." Jack answered uneasily.

"I'm leaving these on the edge of the counter here!" The man in khakis shouted across the store. "New wanted posters are in!" He exited without another word.

Jack's head shot down the bar to the yellow pages. That Jimmy fellow seemed convinced that I'd be on there. I have to get it before anyone sees it.

"Can't wait to get a look at those. That new killer is supposed to be in there." Steven grinned. "First let's get something for Sarah. I've got it. She loves this fresh honey that comes in here once in a while. She has no idea I have this shipment yet. It's in the back." He made his way into a back room.

This is my chance. Jack thought as he shot down to the end of the bar like a sprinter exploding off at the sound of a starter's pistol. He grasped the stack of papers and began flipping through them.

"Not me. Not me. Not me." He said while flipping the papers in panic.

"It's around here somewhere," a voice muffled from the back room. "It will only be another second Jack.

"Not me. No. Where is it?" Jack breathed heavily. "I don't see it." Jack said as he reached the end of the stack.

There were many different types of men with many different types of crimes listed on the wanted posters. Killers, rapists, embezzlers, and kidnappers all headlined what Jack thought would make great paydays, but it was no time for that type of thinking. Jimmy had mentioned that this new man was on a poster. Was he wrong?

"Found the box Jack." Steven's muffled voice continued. "Just another moment."

Jack felt relief. He wasn't in the stack after all. He sucked in a huge breath of relief and lowered his head to release it. As his eyes met the floor Jack noticed that one of the pages had fallen on the floor, its content a mystery as it faced down.

Jack's heart began to pound heavily. If he really was the man on this poster everything would change. He was certain that he would lose Sarah. He would wind up on the run, and he was afraid that one of the few non corrupt lawman man may find himself on the wrong side of his revolver.

Sweat beaded down his arm as his hand made its way to the floor. The air around him seemed thicker, harder to breath. His hand trembled as it made contact with the poster. Lifting it shakingly, Jack flipped it over revealing the new wanted man.

"Massacre Jack. Wanted for murder and kidnapping. Dead or alive. 7, 000 Bills. Armed and dangerous." Jack read as he looked at a near perfect sketch of himself. "Damn it! It is me."

"I found it Jack." Steven said as he made the corner holding a jar of luscious, glowing golden honey. "What you doing down there Jack?" Steven said, still continuing to the register.

"I dropped my… uh… letter." Jack vigorously folded the wanted poster and violently shoved it into his front right pocket of his duster. He stood awkwardly and slowly moved to the register. "Yes. This letter is very…important to me." Jack tried but failed miserably to act nonchalant.

"Yeah, I understand." Steven said as the keys clicked loudly at the press of the fingers of his right hand while his left inspected the items. "That'll be 12 bills and 54 pegs." Steven said with a smile and outstretched palm.

"Keep the change." Jack said while forcing an uncomfortable smile handing Steven 15 bills. Only one side of his mouth followed the instruction to smile.

"Have a great day Jack." Steven said placing the money in the register.

I am home free. I just have to get out of here. Jack thought, still smiling crookedly with a panicked expression. He headed toward the door attempting to keep himself contained.

As Jack opened the front door of the general store only to have his path blocked by a woman carrying a large black shopping bag. She froze in front of him and slowly examined his face as if she knew him, but couldn't remember how. "Don't I know you from somewhere? I know I have seen you somewhere before..."

Damn. Jack thought as a few words fell from his lips. "You must have me confused with someone else."

The woman wasn't convinced, but moved aside for Jack to exit. Her eyes still surveying him as he walked down the steps and onto the road. He heard her almost inaudible voice from outside.

"Don't you realize who that is?" The woman shouted. "Massacre Jack from today's posters!"

Jack walked briskly toward Sarah's home. They all know now. Those bastards spread lies about me to have me killed because I am the only one who has the guts to actually take care of them. Even if they do try to stop me I will keep hunting them down. I don't care what position they hold or how much money they have. Jack stopped walking and stared down at the jar of honey in his right hand. I can't just stay here in Brookvale anymore. What will I tell Sarah?

Jack place the jar of honey in his pocket and began jogging to Sarah's home. The setting sun began to drown in the horizon, its brilliant rays of light hiding behind dark clouds that boasted dark transcendent colors; akin to the darkness rising in Jack's heart. Everything would be different now. Jack's normal life was over.

Jack was a wanted man.