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Reginald Dyhre was feeling. Had he stopped feeling at some point? He was achingly conscious of his being, as if he were emerging from a thick pudding, only to float into darkness. He was floating. He thought he was.

He tried opening his eyes, only to create a minor flutter. But it was no good. It only tired him.

Lying in the dark, he began to slowly realize several things. A constant and deep throbbing pain quietly made itself known. He discerned that there were several in different locations within his body. The most evident felt was in his chest. It ran the width, from side to side. And it throbbed with every labored beat of his heart.

Then, like a slow flap of a condor’s wings, a picture emerged in his mind’s eye. As he remembered, the pain in his chest began to burn.

He had not seen the runaway team in time, of that he was certain. Reginald remembered the neighing and the shouts of horror coming from Foldad’s Mercantile. He remembered turning to see the flared nostrils of Finn McHaughnahy’s wagon team as they rode him down, trod upon him. Then his memory flagged, blanked out.

It must have been a wheel that got him. Now his chest burned with the very memory. And the smaller throbbing pains became more noticeable in his legs and stomach.

How long had he been unconscious? He once again tried to open his eyelids. A flutter and then … Were they open? He blinked. They were open. All was still darkness: darker than any night out at Rodney’s farm when the moon had sneaked behind the thick clouds—darker even than his bedroom in St. Louis.

Raising his hand to his head, he was shocked as it cracked on the rough wood ceiling. I must be in the hospital bunk, he thought. He felt the ceiling. It was rough unpainted wood. How shabby, he thought. Utterly pedestrian and, well, western.

He had come out here to help Rodney with the finances. This was not the city of St. Louis, and by no means the metropolis of his beloved Chicago. He remembered when Chicago was the West.

The hospital was cold, but strangely stuffy. It smelled like sleep and urine, decay, sweat. It was thoroughly unpleasant. But he was tired and in no position to do anything about it tonight. He would just rest this night and, with renewed strength, get up in the morning and see to his condition.

He realized suddenly that he was ravenously hungry, and with that recognition his stomach gurgled loudly and growled.

He brought his right hand up to his stomach to rub it soothingly as if to quiet a crying child. It was then, an oddity clicked like the hammer of a gun within him. He felt his abdomen … odd. He felt higher and noticed the tell-tale apex of a vest at his mid-torso.

A slowly creeping, incomprehensible thought blinked momentarily from the shadows of his mind—a thought so horrid and oppressive that it made not one second attempt to be conceived. Reginald Dyhre was not a man who dwelled on, nor even sallied with thoughts of the grotesque and morbid. No, his was a world of logical understanding, reasoned reality. Numbers were at the center of his world, numbers and funds, logical, clear, understandable beauty. The linear and crystal thought of numbers was his religion, one might say. Certainly his brother: Rodney, Reginald’s wildly impetuous younger brother once said, “At least you have not lost your humanity, my friend. However, your religion is no longer spiritual. It is purely financial. I only thank our Maker that you have not yet fallen in with the unethical of your religion. You still work for your client, I know that. But there are many who work solely for themselves. Please do not fall into the burning pit of their company.”

That talk with Rodney had shaken him up, brought him back to the long and lifeless sermons of Father McPhar, the same, unchanging monotony of the Sunday Mass, the vinegary wine and stale brittle bread of the Eucharist that, for Reginald, was merely the pap of a dying religion, an antique of our older emotional selves.

He realized he was holding his breath. He slowly released it into the stale air. Think. “Fine, now,” he said to no one. I shall rest.

The feeling, for that is what the incomprehensible thought was becoming, swept throughout him again.

It came like a scythe on an October morning, from his feet to his head. It coldly sliced him in two.

He cleared his throat nervously and moved his hand down the wool of his vest. He felt his hands shaking at the thought with which he had begun to battle. Slowly they moved down the vest. That, for which he was feeling and hoping against finding, made itself known below the third vest button. At first he felt the lapel come under his wrist. But it was the button—his suit-coat was buttoned, the black wool winter suit, the one he brought to appease Rodney’s Sunday church habit—that stripped his breath away and made sweat bead up on his forehead. “My God,” he whispered. He moved his right hand back to his side and, for the first time, noticed the wood upon which he lay. His palm was flat against the bottom, his fingers flexing shakily, feeling the rough wood grain below him.

He lay motionless, his throat was parched, his mouth coated in a rank paste. He lay like a young boy in his bed at the still dark morning when he wakes to a strange noise in the night and feels the eyes of an imagined killer upon him: afraid to move to see the shadow, only to find it is his coat upon the door, yet knowing he must move to end the play of terror within him, for good or bad.

His breathing was shallow and labored. His mind battled with itself, and the Titans of reason were finally succumbing to his Olympian dread. No, no, no, repeated over and over within his conscious; and yet he knew the conclusion before the climax was revealed. He scented now the faint odor of the pine resin within the wood that surely surrounded him. It began to enclose his brain like an acrid fog. He shallowed his breathing even more, so as to keep the smell from him. He felt the pain in his chest most intensely, reacting to the fast and forceful beating of his heart. The pains in his legs and abdomen were now incessant pin pricks, fluttering like gnats. He wished to rub them, to squeeze the pain away, but he was too afraid to move, too afraid to confirm his most frightening hypothesis.

With resolve, he began slowly, ever so slowly, to move his hands shakily away from his body, hovering lightly above the wooden bottom. His hands touched the wooden sides of his coffin, and the vacuum of his fear sucked all the air from his lungs and they began to burn.

“My God,” he whispered again.

“My God,” he said louder.

Then, and with the sudden violence of an explosion, his hands burst upward against the roof of his coffin and began to pound and pound and pound. All the while he screamed, “No, no, I’m alive, alive! No, I’m alive!”

His feet kicked up and down and his body bucked inhumanely. He kept pounding with the hope against hope that he wasn’t yet covered with the dirt he feared was above him. “No,” he screamed, now with a high and painful pitch, a banshee wail of the wind. “I’m alive, alive!” His coffin was filled with the sounds of his screaming and the dull thud of his beating and kicking.

As the painful futility of his actions began to seep into his mind he slowed his beating until he was spent, empty of energy. He lay quietly in the darkness of his coffin. The pain in his hands suddenly shot through his arms, making him flinch. He felt his right hand with his left and noticed the warm dampness and roughness of torn and bloody skin. He dropped them again at his sides.

No logic, no reason, nothing could aid him in this. His mind was suddenly blank.

He was going to die. He had never thought that before, even though it was the one surety, the one logical and reasonable truth for all humanity. It was the linear end to all living things. He had known that it was out there: Death. He had written his will before coming out to help Rodney. But that was only at the request of his attorney, due to the tidy sum he was beginning to accumulate. Nevertheless, he had not dwelled upon that certainty. Well, he was now going to have a lot of time to ponder his lack of existence. Too much time.

At this thought, he began to pound again at the ceiling. He pounded twice and ceased, mostly because of the futility, but also because of the intense pain in his hands. It overpowered the constant throbbing pain of his chest and the pin pricks of his other injuries.

Time was now his enemy, he thought. Reginald had always believed he would die in bed, when he had considered death at all. He now knew he would never stand again. He would never see the sunrise over the river, smell the ink from his well or the starch from a fresh shirt. He would never eat again.

My God, he thought, how long will this take! He had read accounts in the newspaper of men being found nearly starved after a month in the western deserts. A month, he thought, a month. That is totally unacceptable. But what could he do?

Finally, he was overwhelmed by the utter sadistic futility of his end, like a blind worm buried in the mud. He began to cry, trying to hold everything inside him. For whom? He wept and screamed a pained and indescribable wail. Surely, if there had been a mourner at his grave, this scream she would have heard. He screamed one continuous lamentable wail. And he wept fully, with the abandon of a tired child, almost luxuriously. He had not wept like that for ages, possibly ever. Nor would he again, Reginald imagined.

He wept for the loss of his own life, for his many lost chances of love and affection. He wept for his regrets, for his failures. He wept even for his sins. For my sins. This thought slowed his weeping, until, finally, it stopped.

For my sins, he thought. When was the last time he had gone to confession? Ten, fifteen years? Certainly not since his apprenticeship, not since he converted to his religion of numbers and finance. Was this the retribution of some reviled Old Testament God? Was this his spiritual cleansing before the final personal Armageddon? Surely there was a reason, a reason beyond blind chance… something beyond the self-determined rationalism of his former existence.

Reginald began to review his past. Who were the people he had slighted? Who were the poor he had ceased to help? What were his impieties and indiscretions and sins? He replayed his spiritual history. And yet nothing stood out as a grievous wrong against humanity or this God, this God he had been taught to fear and love.

Fear and love. They had never been able to meld within his ideology. He could not fear and love anyone at the same time. Either he feared and loathed or he loved and respected. And this God of his childhood he was taught to fear. Therefore this God ceased to exist within Reginald Dyhre’s life.

Meaningless, utterly meaningless.

He no longer questioned his state. He had come to understand his situation. It had been, he thought grimly, a good idea about the will.

This thought, the will, clicked in his mind. He searched for the recollection of it. He grabbed for his pocket-watch in his vest’s right pocket. It was there, just like he had written. This discovery quickened his blood like a Christmas morning. Is it there? he asked himself. He licked his lips with hesitant expectation and slowly moved his left hand down to his side.

Yes, it was there, just like he had written on that god-awful paper back in St. Louis. “Well, you can’t be too sure about what’s a gonna happen out there, you know,” MacKenzie, his attorney, had said. “You got to write down what you want done with your body. What kinds of keepsakes and memorabelios you want to take with you to the great beyond. It’s all a lot of horse toddy, if you ask me. But it brings me some business.”

He slid his hand into his left hip pocket, feeling the cold wetness of the cotton insides against his thigh. He felt the little derringer, cold and moist, and quickly grasped it, pressed firmly between his fingers and his palm, like some lost talisman.

“Thank God,” he whimpered. Thank God for that god-awful will, he thought.

He pulled the gun from his trousers and moved it up to his chest. He rubbed the side with his right hand, lovingly, softly. It was his most outrageous, wild-haired purchase. The first thing, the only thing really, he had purchased with the spontaneity of a young boy’s early summer skinny dip. He closed his eyes, now only from habit, to concentrate on its image: the silver, stubby barrel with the filigree of such intricacy it drew him in every time he looked at it; the mother of pearl inlay in the handle, its opalescence like milk on a mirror. It loaded like a shotgun, but it was a gentleman’s gun, a sophisticated gun. He had never even fired it. Indeed, he had slipped it into his pocket so often along with his coppers and nickels, handkerchiefs, and pocket-watch and all the other talismans he adorned himself with mindlessly in the morning, that he had forgotten it was a prized and cherished possession.

And now he knew what he would do. Was this the way he was going to leave? Was this what his mother meant all those years ago? “God has a plan, Reginald. You just remember that.” The imagined sound of his mother’s voice no longer carried a mother’s love. Now it was the sound of his end, the sound of mocking. Was this God’s plan? Reginald was angered now at this thought. Even though this God was no longer in his heart, this God still dug into his brain.

“What the hell did you want from me?” he screamed. “What did I do? To whom? To what? What?” He began to cry in a sudden burst and writhed within the coffin like a larval moth.

“What?” he screamed again.

“What?” he wept.

“What?” quietly, the torrent over.

Resolve, he thought. It was, of course, against the law of God. But God had left him now. He could not imagine anyone more alone in the world.

He wiped his nose with the back of his hand.

Christ was said to be alone on the cross. But he had Mary Magdalene and his mother and his kingdom. He wasn’t alone. I am alone, he thought, and stifled a cry.

The sooner you do this the better. Come, now, resolve. His fingers could not grip the gun. His hands, shaking, could not do the work now. He violently slammed his hands against the sides of the coffin. “Work, damn you!” he yelled. “It’s all I ask.”

He shook them out and grasped the gun with his right hand and weakly pulled back on the hammer, hearing and feeling the light click he loved so much when cleaning the gun.

“Now,” he said through clenched teeth. He brought the gun barrel up under his chin and pressed in into the softness of his skin. He rested the top of the barrel on his Adam’s apple, and it wavered there.

“Now,” he said again, a little more determinedly. He swallowed hard and the thought of a blessing, a prayer, something just in case, went through his mind. His eyes began to water profusely and the tears ran like rain down a window into his ears and along the bottom of his neck at the hairline.

“Now,” he said again, in a squeak, nearly inaudible.

He pulled on the trigger as Samson at the columns. He pulled and pulled, so slowly, pulling ever so slowly.

“Now, damn it.”

He felt the trigger snap back.

Click.

A sudden rush of fear swept through him. He pulled the trigger again.

Click

Again.

Click.

It was a sound more painful to him than the pain of the whole universe. It was a feeling more empty than death. He grabbed the barrel with his left hand and cracked the gun at the middle, without a beat sticking his right forefinger into the butt-end of the empty barrel. His lungs exploded outward with his held breath. “No,” he breathed.

His elbows dropped to the hard wooden bottom of his coffin, his hands sliding down his chest, his belly, to fall at his sides. His prized and worthless derringer thudded on the wood next to his thigh.

He stared silently into the darkness.

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