Good morning, Everyone!
I hope the beginning of your week is going good. Today we’ve come to the end of this particular tale. That’s right, this is the end of Old Tom Cotton’s Boy. But worry not, this is most certainly not the end of Barracuda Slim, his story is just beginning…
Now for those of you that are just tuning in, you can catch up on the PART ONE and PART TWO if you wish, or you can jump right over to the complete OLD TOM COTTON’S BOY on my SHORT FICTION page. Either way, here’s the conclusion of this tale. Enjoy.
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“What about that Old Scratch, Slim ‘Cuda? I know I heard you had to refute that Devil and all his wiles.” Green George had left his markers forgotten at his side and was focused on Barracuda and the tale he told. George’s eyes followed Slim’s every move, he was captive in the story and no amount of huffing chemicals was going to draw him away.
“Heck, George! You tellin’ this tale? How ‘bout you let me finish explaining how Old Tom Cotton gived me this here letter in first place? You can’t go tellin’ no tale by skippin’ ahead to parts that ain’t even happened yet! Now listen close!” Barracuda Slim cleared his throat and held the rumpled old envelope before him, the dingy paper almost had the look of gold in the light of the fire.
“Now,” began Barracuda Slim, “you can’t imagine how poetical and proper Tom Cotton was when we finally arrived in Kentucky.”
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He had all this calm pouring from him as he looked across the fire at Barracuda Slim. Tom Cotton had a hand inside his coat and wore the smile of an angel; not one of them arch-angels that was all wrath and fit to fight with burning swords, but one of them curly haired angels with the white robes and harps with all the kindest words hanging from their lips.
“Barracuda, I need to ask somethin’ that might change your life. I wouldn’t ask it of no man ‘cept those that I trust.” He took that smooth white envelope from his coat and turned it over and over in his hands. “This here is a letter, and it’s so important you couldn’t believe it. I had me a talk last night with this man all in golden light, he told me I was goin’ home and that I had nothing to worry for. He gave me an address–”
Tom Cotton held the fine white envelope out to Slim, the look in his clear eyes spoke of nothing less than gratitude and friendship. Barracuda reached for it, but Tom held it back a moment.
“Please don’t take this here letter without hearin’ what I ask and promisin’ me the mightiest of promises.”
Barracuda looked long and hard at the envelope before meeting Tom’s eyes with a slow nod. “I don’t ‘spect this to be no light thing,” he finally said as he let the envelope slid into his fingers.
“Slim, I need for you to understand that I was never a good man, never a good man till I ran the iron with you. You changed the way I looked at everything around me, the same way you made everyone you met see the light behind the sun, the glory in the morning dew. I can’t thank you enough for what you did for me just by being my friend.” Tom Cotton coughed shortly, staining his lips a deep crimson. “This here letter is to my son. I done wrong by him and his ma by not bein’ there. I skipped out from a great fear that I would fail them. The funny thing is, by doin’ what I did I only made that failure become the truth, and that ain’t no good thing. What I’m asking you Slim, is can you take this letter to my boy? He needs to know the heart of my misdeeds even if he only hates me for it. Please, Slim, I need to hear you say it.”
Slim wiped the wetness of his eyes with a dirty sleeve and sniffled, wiping his nose after. He looked up from the smooth white envelope, so crisp and clean, and for the first time noticed how pale Tom had become. Poor old Tom Cotton had become pale and white as his namesake, white as that perfect envelope. His clear eyes had never been so serious and desperate as he looked at Barracuda.
“I promise you this Tom Cotton. I will find your boy and I will hand him letter directly. On our friendship I swear it.”
Tom Cotton’s whole body slumped and sagged at the sound of Slim’s words. It was like he held this great and terrible weight that just suddenly lifted from him and gave him comfort. He choked out a few final words that were lost amid the coughing before he shuddered one final time and lay still. Yes Sir, the last thing that moved on Old Tom Cotton was the blood that rolled down his cold cheek on that clear night in Kentucky.
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Barracuda Slim sat, moving as slow as ketchup from the bottle. He took a good moment looking into that fire all glowing and shedding its heat. He briefly looked up and gave a short nod to another free man that had joined them, seating himself between D’Dan Dan and Church Bell Chris. This new fellow sat quietly and watched only Slim; he made no notice of acknowledging the others gathered at that fire.
Barracuda folded and tucked the envelope back into his coat and took a long final pull from the warm can of beer at his side. He crushed the empty can and tossed it away with a foamy belch before rolling a cigarette from the dirty pouch of tobacco he dug from his pocket. He lit and took a few puffs from the smoke, everyone waiting for him to speak again, but none dare break that revered silence being held for Tom Cotton.
“I made certain that Tom Cotton had the most respectful of last rites. I done spoke the words myself and spent the whole day digging him the most proper of a grave. Even made sure he had a rightful holy cross to mark where he lay till the good Lord sees fit to lift him to the highest of graces and admit that man into the gates of Heaven. Heck, we all know that’s where a man has to go that passes with such a clean soul.” Barracuda blew a stream of smoke into the fire.
Church Bell turned to the new comer, “Who might you be friend?”
The man never broke his gaze from Barracuda as he answered in a cold way, the same chill in the air around them. “Me? Why I’m just passin’ through. They call me Long Road. Say fella, why don’t you finish this here tale, you got my interest piqued. And I tell ya, I’m just dying to hear the rest of it.”
Slim buttoned his coat tight and forced a smile that looked every bit as genuine as the real thing, but he knew there was something strange at work. This stranger, the very man that claimed he was called Long Road, had all the same feeling as another body he came across…
“Well, you see, I knew from the address on the envelope that I had to go to New Mexico. So that’s the very place I went. Suffering through all the heat and the journey from Kentucky, I ran to that place non-stop. You see, I was just beginning a quest. Not a quest like that old King Arthur to find some great relic. I already had me a powerful artifact, what’s more magical and sacred than a dead man’s last words to his son? So I went to New Mexico.”
Barracuda Slim flicked his cigarette butt into the fire.
“That is a great and holy thing to have, Slim ‘Cuda. Nothing more powerful than carrying that much honesty, that’s fer sure.” Church Bell nodded solemnly.
A train whistle blared out in the night and Slim stood, stretching out his back and legs. “Now, that address in New Mexico didn’t get me nowhere; it was all just empty lots that never had a chance to made into whole homes. So I was searching. What I found led me deep into the Midwest, you see I spoke with one of them Postal Workers and got me a forwarding address. So I hopped a rail and was on the move just like that.”
Slim knelt and folded his blanket, tying it to his pack as the folks gathered waited for more of the tale. They were all so fixated on what was being told about Old Tom Cotton’s boy that not one of them could see that Slim was packing up to leave.
“Now here’s what you can’t believe. I tell you this part is the most incredible and made me realize just how important it was that I carry this letter to this boy that was Tom Cotton’s son. You see, that Old Scratch appeared on that very train in that very car right in front this very Barracuda Slim! He was all slick hair and fancy duds, and smooth perfume to cover the stink of all his sulfur and brimstone. Sure as I’m standing here, I tell you that old Devil tried to take this letter from me. He offered me anything I wanted just to get his red hands on this paper. No Sir, I told him! I gave my word and not even that red fellow with his black horns and black hooves was goin’ to make me give this up and break my promise.”
Long Road leaned forward, the firelight casting an orange glow over his face and shining deep into his hollow eyes. “So you still have it then? You must carry such a prized and noble thing in a safe place. I don’t suppose you might let me see such a beautiful thing?”
Barracuda laughed and threw his head back. He had himself a right good chuckle as he lifted his pack. Slim turned on that fellow and looked Long Road right in his eyes.
“You’d have to find me dead to get a hold on this letter.”
The gentle chug of a diesel was drawing nearer, another long whistle blew through the night, and Slim made his move. He kicked the fire sending hot wood and cinder into the Strangers face as he turned and ran for the train. Slim knew this train was bound for the north, heading clear into Canada. Now, Barracuda was a man who had followed the rails for such a time that he knew the train would be getting a good head of speed going by the time he got to it. He knew that it might be tough for him to jump that iron, but it’d be harder still for Long Road to catch it up.
Slim dared not look behind him, he just had that notion that somewhere back there, that thing that was just as much a creature of Hell as Old Scratch himself, was racing along to tear that letter from Old Tom Cotton away from him. Barracuda knew in that moment that this tiny envelope that held so much truth, held the powerful words of a dead man to his only son, was something more important than he ever thought possible.
As the train came into view, speeding along and puffing hard as that old smoke belcher could, Barracuda pushed himself more than he ever had. It took all that he was to reach out and grab that ladder; it took more than he was to yank himself up to that step and hold on with arms and legs that wiggled like wet spaghetti noodles. But there was a strength that seemed to fill him up, fill him like a holy light, and perhaps that just what it was.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw that strange fellow, that Long Road that came out of the night to sit at the fire he shared with Church Bell, and D’Dan Dan, and Green George, that dark man who only wanted Tom Cotton’s letter, fall behind. Barracuda knew now that that Long Road was to be his hunter and now Slim was a protector of this here letter till he died or till he found Old Tom Cotton’s boy.
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I hope you enjoyed the final bit of the tale. If you have any questions or comments I’d love to hear from you!
Thanks for stopping by, and have a great day! 🙂