Charlie paused, silhouetted in the doorway, and slapped dust from his leathers while his eyes adjusted to the gloom. A window overlooked the mud of Main Street but the glass had long been stained by grime that choked every feeble mote of light. The Law Office of Martin Banks Esq. was painted on the window in gold script and the lettering was chipped and fading. Like everything in Cherry Cove it was worn and in a state of advanced disrepair.
“Mornin’, Preacher, glad you could make it.” The lawyer resolved into a dark lump sitting behind his desk. His spectacles reflected light from outside and for a moment they glowed there, in the shadows, like the eyes of a mountain cat.
“Thanks for the letter, Martin. There ain’t nothing Eugene would leave me that I’d want but I figured showing up is the right thing to do. The least I can do is say some words.”
Willis Patterson stepped into the room from the kitchen and the floorboards groaned under his weight. “Well that’s kind of you Charlie. Saintly, even, that you’d grace us with your presence.” He was carrying an old tin mug that had been freshly topped with thick, black coffee. His beard, the color of dirt and gold, sprung in in all directions and straddled his chin like the tail of a comet. Coffee ran through the wiry hair and dribbled across his chest.
“Good to see you, too, Willis,” said Charlie. “Our brother around?”
“He’s out back taking a shit.”
Charlie frowned, “You learned those manners in Yuma?” He cursed himself for using his younger sibling’s prison stint to slander but old habits died hard and he couldn’t help reverting to a younger, more impulsive, man in the company of his brothers.
Willis flashed his teeth in a feral smile and flipped his coat back to reveal a heavy steel hunting knife strapped to his thigh. The old service revolver on Charlie’s hip itched. He hadn’t used it for anything but target practice in twelve years and he marveled silently at the depth of his old habits. Willis sat heavily in a chair facing the door and leaned it back on two legs, the cup of coffee settled on the swell of his gut.
Martin raised his arms in mock alarm and flapped his soft, pink hands. “Now fellas, this is a solemn occasion, and I’m sure you can all muster some civility for the reading of your old man’s will.”
“S’pose”, acknowledged Willis.
“Of course.” said Charlie, “The least we can do.”
A door in the back room creaked open then slammed shut so hard it caused dust to fall from the rafters and fill the air. It hung there, sparkling in the meager light. The men waited quietly, listening to the stomp and drag footsteps of their eldest brother, Black. Years ago he’d been rustling cattle in the dark of night when his horse caught a leg in a gully, throwing Black to the ground. The cattle had run straight over him crushing his leg. There were more breaks than he could count and the doctor said he’d never seen anyone in such a state and still among the living. A small consolation to Black, who held a deep and steady hatred for the leather and steel splint holding his leg rigid and usable all these years.
Black limped into the room, steadying himself against the doorjamb to catch his breath. He saw Charlie and muttered, “Didn’t figure to see you here. Figured you’d be out West selling Jesus to the natives.”
Charlie stared his brother down, glad that the darkness would hide the flush in his cheeks. “I got Martin’s letter in Jefferson City. Took the coach down.”
Black coughed and eased himself into the room. “Let’s get this over. I ain’t comfortable here. Sheriff Paige s'been sniffing ‘round and I’m sure he'll find some reason to lock me up.”
“Right.” said Martin. He produced a stack of paper and rapped the edges against his desk. “I have here the last will and testament of Col. Eugene Patterson, your father. I just....”
Black interrupted, “He was a stone-hearted bastard. A swindler and an abuser of women.”
“Nevertheless, “said Martin, “he was your father and a decorated veteran. As I was saying, I only just pulled it from the postal folder so I don’t yet know what he stipulates though he warned me some weeks ago that this document would be...atypical.”
“What’s that s’posed to mean? Atypical.” asked Willis.
Charlie sighed, “It’s a nice way of saying ‘pain in the ass.’ ”
Willis took a slow sip of his coffee, smacked his lips and wiped his mouth this sleeve. “Sounds like the Colonel, alright.”
Martin observed this exchange over the top of his spectacles. When Willis was satisfied he rattled the papers and addressed the brothers, “There’s some legal declaration here at the top stipulating that you three are the sole heirs of Eugene’s estate. If there are no objections I’ll skip it. You can read that section later, at your leisure.” He looked up and the brothers nodded their heads. Charlie gestured for him to continue.
Clearing his throat Martin squinted then read from the topmost page, “I, Eugene R. Patterson, of the Town of Cherry Cove, County of Camden, and State of Missouri, being of sound and disposing mind and memory, do hereby make, publish and declare this to be my Last Will and Testament, hereby revoking all Wills and Codicils previously made by me.”
Martin paused and looked at the brothers in turn. “Now,” he said, “I’m sorry to say your father came to a messy ending but I’ve reviewed his estate and, remarkably, he died debt free. With that in mind I’ll skip the next section which typically regards debts and taxes owed. I’ll assume you’re okay with that unless I hear otherwise.”
Black growled, “Dammit, Martin, we don’t give two craps ‘bout debts an’ taxes. What’d the man leave us?”
Flustered, Martin scanned the document with his finger and his expression slowly softened then assumed a look of astonishment.
“Huh, here we go...Article Six, tangible personal property.”
He began reading, “As my offspring are either degenerates or soft, conflicted puritans I am torn that I have not a true son, worthy to bequeath my estate. It is my sincere hope that one of my sons might rise to the challenge today and become a man of grit and hard determination worthy of the name Patterson.”
“What th’ hell?” Willis mumbled.
“I give all of the tangible personal property that I may own at the time of my death, which is not otherwise specifically bequeathed under this Will, including my personal effects, household furniture and furnishings, and property to whichever of my children survives the five minutes following the reading of this will. Should none survive then my estate shall be donated to the city of Cherry Cove."
Black’s smile revealing tobacco-stained teeth, “Well I’ll be damned. Martin, how much d’you reckon our esteemed father’s estate is worth?” Slowly he dropped a hand to his side so his fingers, swinging, floated near the grip of his revolver. Charlie remembered his brother carrying a short-barreled Colt that drew fast and he felt something sinking deep in his chest.
Across the room Willis was setting his tin of coffee on the corner of Martin’s desk. He planted his feet and the floorboards squeaked as he eased the front two legs of the chair towards the ground.
Martin was pale. He set the sheaf of papers on his desk and stammered, “Now gentleman. I cannot say what your father had in mind with the writing of this will but I can only assume that his true meaning is somehow opaque. Besides, there isn't a court in the state that would recognize this document. Let’s discuss this...”
“How much, Martin?” Charlie was surprised to find himself speaking. “I don’t know what Eugene intended but my brothers have never been suited to discussion." He angled his body between his Willis and Black, splitting the difference with his line of sight.
Martin swallowed and shuffled through paperwork while the brothers stared at each other.
“Here, I have it.” said Martin. His hands were beginning to shake. “The estate is worth a total of, um, twelve thousand dollars.”
In the silence that followed they could clearly hear the ticking of the grandfather clock in the back room and the rumble of a coach as it passed the office on it’s way down Main Street, towards the docks. A fever flushed Charlie’s skin and his vision blurred. He knew he should try to stop this nonsense in the name of man or God's law but, no matter what he said, his brothers would do what their father wanted. He had no choice.
The front two legs of Willis’ chair hit the floor with a bang, followed by the rasp of his knife slipping from its sheath. Charlie slapped his coat back, wrapped his fingers around the grip of his old revolver. Black’s Colt barked twice, the report was deafening, and a bullet tugged at Charlie's opposite shoulder. He was slower than the last time he fired on a man but he dragged out his revolver, all the same, and aimed in the confines of the lawyer’s office.
He didn’t feel a thing.