I wrote this story as part of Patti Abbott's "At the Zoo" Flash Fiction Challenge. Thanks, Patti, for hosting the event. Check out her blog for more details and other participants.
“Man vs. Beast at High Noon”
by Cullen Gallagher
Chase Klorfine had just about finished tying Pastor Jack to his pulpit.
“Folks always say a pastor should be tied to his job,” Chase said.
“You’ll pay for this, Chase Klorfine. May wild animals tear you limb from limb for all eternity in the pits of Hell!” Pastor Jack said.
“Now that’s just downright mean.” Chase pulled the rope tighter and Pastor Jack winced. “When my time comes—a long time from now, and far away from this stinking Kansas cowtown—I’ll deal with the Lord one-on-one. I can be quite the charmer. Just ask the nice old lady who plays the organ—once she regains consciousness.”
“You beast!” Pastor Jack struggled futilely against the rope.
Flashing a wicked grin, Chase tugged the rope one final time and spat a thick glob of tobacco juice in the pastor’s face.
“Just watch yourself, Pastor, or you’ll soon be joining all those saints you talk so highly of.”
As Chase stormed out of the church, he passed dozens of parishioners, all of whom were hogtied and stuffed in the aisles between the pews. Some of them squirmed hopelessly, while others prayed out loud. The collective rumble of their devotion raised even the hairs on the back of Chase’s neck.
“Keep your religion to yourself!” Chase roared, and emptied his pistol into the rafters. Dust and splinters rained on the churchgoers as Chase stepped out of the musty church and into the blazing noon heat. The outlaw’s underlings—lieutenants, he called them—were lined up in the middle of the street, standing at attention.
One by one, they stepped forward and spoke.
“The sheriff and all his deputies are locked in their cells, sir!”
“Telegraph wires are down.”
“The bank manager and tellers are locked in the safe. We got over ten grand.”
“All the merchants are locked in a cellar. The door is locked, and there’s a couple hundred-pound barrels of grain on top. No chance they’ll escape from there. All in all, five hundred and some change.”
“Every last townsfolk is corralled in the town hall. Heff and his crew are guarding them now. Got roughly seventy-five and some small change from the wallets and pocket books.”
“And Madam Fifi and her girls are all ready, waiting, and willing—provided we reimburse them for services rendered, of course.”
Chase frowned at that. He’d have to show Fifi some of the old Klorfine Family Charm.
Only one lieutenant hadn’t reported.
“Vega! What about those snake oil peddlers?”
Vega stepped forward. “You mean Doc Delaney’s Wonders of the Wild West and Beyond Traveling Zoo, Medicine Show and Universitarium, sir!”
“I don’t care what in tarnation they call it, it is still just some has-been charlatan hawking booze behind medicine labels and parading some pretty white lady covered in mud pretending to be an Injun princess.” Chase shot a torrent of tobacco between Vega’s legs. “Despicable. A whore house is more educational than that.”
“This one has animals, sir!”
“Critters, you say?” Chase stroked his goatee.
“The most wondrous and dangerous creatures in the world. Boxing kangaroos from Australia …”
“Go on …”
“… elephants from India, poisonous snakes, more deadly than anything to be found in the desert …”
“Psssh. That’s all? I thought you said dangerous.”
“But wait, Chase, there’s more. The star attraction is a real African lion. The king of the jungle. The biggest killer of them all. No lion has ever met a foe in the wild that it couldn’t kill yet. This one is even rumored to have killed its former owner, Christian Charlie.”
“Who’s that?” Chase asked.
“Christian Charlie, as in Christian Charlie’s Trick Pony and Circus Sideshow, Sponsored by Christian Charlie’s Religious Elixirs and Spiritual Rejuvenation Products. You might not believe it if you haven’t tried it yourself, but his elixirs really did wonders for my spirit.”
Chase stopped rubbing his chin.
“Just ask my wife!” Vega said.
Chase lobbed the whole gob of tobacco in Vega’s face.
Vega let the wad drip down his face, and then continued. “There’s a trick, though, sir. Christian Charlie told me this after drinking a little too much of his own elixir. The lion is hypnotized, so he’s actually as friendly as a kitten, even though he’s roaring and clawing like a wild animal. But just say the magic word, and he goes back to killer mode—for real this time. Charlie never did tell me the magic word, though. And it sure would come in handy now because, well sir, something happened.”
“Vega, I’m going to give you just five seconds to tell me how much money we got from those circus freaks. One …”
Chase hadn’t felt so dumbfounded since his schoolhouse days. And those ended when he was six.
“Come now, Vega?”
“That is correct, sir. No money. The lions got it. Doc Delaney, he hides it in a chest in the lion cage so that no one can get it.”
“So why didn’t you go get it, if the kitten is so friendly?”
“Well, sir, you said yourself those snake oil salesmen are a bunch of charlatans. What if he was lying about the whole hypnotism bit and the lion bit my head off?”
Chase’s hand went to his gunbelt, resting on the butt of his Colt.
“You know how we do in this outfit, Vega. You don’t get the money, you get one chance to shoot for your life. You remembered what happened to Billy, and Goat, and Rooney, and Chick, and Dallas. Do I need to go on?”
Chase snapped back the hammer on his Colt.
“But, Chase! I can still get it from the lion, just give me a chance!” Without reaching for his guns, Vega’s hands flew up in protest.
Chase’s Colt exploded twice. Hot iron bore holes through both of Vega’s eyes, the force of the bullets throwing him backwards into a trough.
“Now let’s go kill us a lion and get the rest of the money and get back on the trail. If we ride all night, we can be in Topeka by tomorrow morning.”
Doc Delaney’s Wonders of the Wild West and Beyond Traveling Zoo, Medicine Show and Universitarium was set up on the outskirts of town. The two-dozen wagons formed a circle, inside which the performances and lectures would be held. Some of the wagons had signs like “Fortunes Told” and “Anatomy Lectures—No Females or Children,” and these had small steps leading into the wagon. Other wagons were little more than cages on wheels. Sure enough, there was a kangaroo, an elephant, and even wicker baskets that hissed and rocked back and forth. Chase had no interest in snakes, however. His eyes were locked on the cage in the center of the circle.
The lion. And in the middle of the cage, a large wooden chest.
“There it is, boys. Now watch and learn.”
Chase stalked back and forth in front of the cage, mirroring the lion’s movements inside the cage. He stared the beast in the eyes, locking their gaze, never blinking or looking away.
Chase’s lieutenants formed a semi-circle around the two warriors. They whispered back and forth, impressed with their chief’s almost instinctual rapport with the lion.
Chase and the lion had stopped pacing, and were staring fiercely into each others’ eyes. Chase’s eyes were cold and steady.
And then the lion lay down, resting its large jaw on top of its folded paws.
“See? Nothing to it.”
Chase opened the cage and walked circles around dormant beast and the treasure chest.
“I told you those snake oil peddlers were just charlatans. The lion’s as harmless as a female. Now to get this treasure chest out of here. It sure is heavy. Must be full of money!”
Chase crouched behind the treasure chest, getting ready to push it out the cage door. Unfortunately, he got careless and stopped paying attention to the lion. Specifically the lion’s tail. Right before he shoved the treasure chest, he lifted his foot and stomped down hard for extra momentum. It was a good idea, except he crushed the lion’s tail, arousing the angry killer within the beast.
Outside the cage, all the lieutenants watched in horror as the lion stuffed Chase Klorfine’s entire head into its mouth, and then ripped his limbs from his body like an angry child with a ratty doll.
So entranced were the lieutenants that they failed to register as the lion stepped to the edge of the cage door, hind legs poised to pounce, front claws fully extended.
The lion jumped out of the cage and into the dumbfounded outlaws, fatally crushing two of the lieutenants with its five hundred pounds of pure man-eating muscle.
One of the remaining lieutenants instinctively reached for its pistol, but the lion was faster on the draw, and swatted the gun out of the outlaw’s hand with one paw while ripping out his throat with the other.
The two remaining lieutenants both ran towards the exit. With one giant leap, the lion landed in front of one of the outlaws, deafening the man with its mighty roar and sickening him with its nauseating breath. The last sound the human ever made was a girly shriek. Then the lion clubbed him across the head and dug its teeth into a feast of human entrails.
The lion had forgotten about the remaining human until a poor shot kicked up dirt into its face. The beast, its regal mane streaked with blood and tufts of human hair caught between its razor sharp teeth, turned around to see the last remaining lieutenant standing in the center of the entrance. His gun drawn and ready to fire.
The lion calmly rose and strode towards the lone gunman.
The man fired.
The shot missed.
The lion walked was getting closer and closer.
The lion kept coming, slow but steady.
Two more shots, both of them wild misses.
The gunman was panicking.
He raised the gun to his lips, kissed the piping hot barrel, singeing his lips as he whispered a prayer.
He never did finish that prayer before the lion slashed with its claw and ripped the last lieutenant’s lips from his face. The beast then proceeded to devour the rest of his head.
Alerted by all the gunshots, Heff and the remaining outlaws ran to the zoo to see what all the commotion was about. They found the arena littered with the dismembered, disemboweled corpses of their leaders.
By the time they realized the lion cage was empty, it was too late. The beast was in the air, roaring its magnificent war cry. There were ten outlaws this time, but that was nothing compared to the battles it had fought—and won—in the jungles back home. These human didn’t stand a chance against the king.
Inside the church, the pastor and his parishioners—all still tied up—heard the blood-curdling screams.
“Let us pray. God, grant us mercy,” Pastor Jack said, roped tight to his pulpit, “and give us a gust of wind so that the church door will close and protect us from beasts, whether human or animal.”
The screams stopped, and the lion’s roar came closer and closer, growing steadily louder.
The Pastor held his breath, and waited for his prayers to come true.