The Magic Gumball Machine, Part II

By Wil Forbis

Click here for Part II

Our story so far: A mysterious salesman appears in the night to convince ice cream store operator Tom Humphries to purchase an extraordinary gumball machine. Tom refuses, but the machine get delivered the next day. It's a hit with the numerous youths for whom Tom has a genuine affection. But will it pull the shop out of its financial woes? Read on.

"I'm sorry, Tom. There's nothing I can do here." Harold Bowman removed his small gold-rimmed spectacles and sighed. He didn't like being the bearer of bad news, particularly for a customer with whom he had a genuine fondness, such as Tom Humphries. But he couldn't change the numbers, especially when they were the same numbers he'd reported a month previous, and a month previous to that, going all the way back to when this whole unfortunate mess had started.

"But there's got to be something." replied Tom, his voice shaking. He didn't like the way he sounded and he know it must've been making Harold uncomfortable, but.

Tom was seated facing Harold Bowman who was resting comfortably in a leather swivel chair behind his large oak desk in the Titus National Bank building of Delsburgh. It was Saturday afternoon and the bank was closing soon. Both men were going over the financial documents for the purchase of 'The Good Ship Lollipop' that had taken place thirty-five years ago. Harold was the branch's chief mortgage and loan officer. As a young man just out of college he had handled the paperwork when Tom had secured a loan to purchase the ice cream store. Now middle aged, Harold seemed destined to sit back and watch as Tom Humphries' dream collapsed around him.

"Tom, what you have to pay off is not that much," Harold said. "Are you sure, there's nothing you can do?"

"You're right," said Tom. His eyes furtively glanced at the sum of the debt owed as it was written out on the paperwork before him. "It's not that much. But it's just enough. I've sold what I can. I don't have a home I can mortgage. I'm plum broke, Harold."

"What about family?" Harold asked. "Isn't there someone who could loan you the money? The bank can't give you any more extensions, but maybe an uncle or nephew."

"My family's long since gone," interupted Tom. "The only family I have is my birds. They may be good company but they ain't much for moneymaking."

"What about friends?" asked Harold. "I know you're beloved down in Honey Bluff. Maybe someone there could."

"No!" said Tom, raising his voice. "I can't do that, Harold. I just can't."

"Okay, okay," cooed the bank officer, aware that he'd wounded Tom's pride by even making the suggestion.  "But I have to say, Tom, I'm out of ideas. If you can't make this payment by next Friday, Titus Bank will have no choice by to take ownership of the shop. It hurts me to see something like this happening, Tom. Especially to you. But the situation is what it is."

"I know, Harold," replied Tom. "I know you've done everything you can. The bank's been more than generous."

"Believe me, it hasn't been easy," interjected "Harold. "I've had to do some quick talking to keep the wolves at bay."

"I know, " repeated Tom. "I thank you for that. I really do."

Harold Bowman leaned back in his chair and tapped a pen against the table. He was contemplating the situation and trying to get a full read of the man in front of him. There was something that was missing, something that didn't add up. He paused, then spoke. "Can I ask you something, Tom? Something personal?"

"Of course," replied Tom, a bit curious about what Harold wanted to know.

"I've been down to your shop. You've always got a healthy amount of customers. Sometimes you can barely tend to them all."

"That's true," Tom laughed. "I had to hire Reverend Rully's boy a few years ago, just to give myself an extra set of hands."

"So what's happening?" Harold asked. "You should be making at least enough profit to pay off the loan?"

"Heck, Harold, don't you think I've asked myself that?" replied Tom. "Maybe I've just given away too many vanilla milkshakes. I just. I've just never been very good with money. It's like there some part of my brain that can't be bothered to keep track of it. I focus so much on the people, on the kids. I lose track of all the other things."

Bowman sighed, privately unsatisfied with the answer. "I'm sorry about all this, Tom. I really am. But I have to be blunt with you. You have until next Friday to come up with the money. Otherwise you lose the shop." He paused, letting the seriousness of his words sink in. Then he smiled and resumed his pitch. "Look, don't give up yet. There may be a way out of this. You just need to get creative. If you put your thinking cap on you just may come up with something." His upbeat tone skillfully hid the fact that he didn't believe a word he was saying.

"I hear you, Harold," Tom said. "And you're right. I'm not ready to give up the ghost yet. I'll see if I can come up with. something."

Both men stood up. "Good luck," said Harold reaching over the oak desk to shake Tom's hand. Tom limply returned the gesture and then collected all the financial documents related into a manila folder. He grabbed his jacket from the nearby coat rack and walked out of the bank.

Within ten minutes Tom was in his truck and on Route 15 heading back to Honey Bluff. He'd done the drive hundred of times in his life - he usually headed into Delsburgh at least once a month for supplies - and he found his time spent of the road very peaceful. The scenery was a pleasant mosaic of open farmland, small hills and the beginnings of the Bluff marshes that were to the east of the area. It was easy to lose an hour by letting the road carry you along while your thoughts wandered.

Tom passed through a curvy section of hills and came out to an open stretch. It was farmland on both sides, and the clear sky seemed to make the open spaces even bigger. There were no cars in sight and Tom had a wonderful feeling of aloneness. Here, surrounded by the majesty of nature, he could let his troubles exhale away as he embraced being part of something larger than his life.

Then Tom squinted his eyes and gave out a curious grunt. A mile ahead was a man walking along side of the road. Near town, it wasn't that unusual to see a farmer ambling in for a bite to eat, but this fellah was a ways out. If he were headed into Honey Bluff he wouldn't get there for several hours. It crossed Tom's mind that the man might've broken down somewhere, but Tom hadn't seen any stalled vehicles. The hairs on the back of Tom's neck pricked up and he eased off the gas a bit to give himself a little more time to work things out.

As he got closer to the man, Tom was able to get a better look at him. He was a black man, young and with a sturdy build. He was wearing a plaid shirt, denim jeans, and on his back was a large sized knapsack. Even though he must've heard the truck coming up behind him, the man didn't look back. He just kept walking with the dedication of a military marcher. Tom passed the fellah and looked over, trying to catch the man's eye. But the man paid Tom no notice. It was curious behavior. Tom had figured the man would at least try and flag him down for a ride. There was nowhere a person would want to go around here that they couldn't get to faster by car. Tom spotted a section where the shoulder of the road widened and he slowed to a stop and looked back. The man kept walking. He was staring straight ahead his face gave no indication that he even saw the truck.

"Walking like a gol-durned zombie," Tom said to himself. He opened up the door and hopped out of the truck. The man was now about 30 feet away. "Hello!" called out Tom. "You need a lift?"

The man looked concerned, almost frightened. Tom smiled. It was a rare day someone was frightened of him. He called out again. "I just thought I'd stopped and see if you needed a ride. Wherever you're going, you got a ways of walking to do." 

"Yes, sir," the man said walking up closer to the truck. "That I do."

"C'mon," Tom prodded. "Where you headed?"

"I'm headed into Honey Bluff, sir" the man replied. "But I don't want to be no trouble."

"Let me tell you a couple things," Tom began. "First off, ain't nobody but nobody that calls me, 'sir.' Makes me feel about as old as a man can get. You call me Tom."

"Reginald," the black man replied, offering his name in return. "Reginald Washington."

"Pleased as a peaches to meet you, Reginald," Tom said, holding out his hand. The man took it and gave it a hearty shake. "Now secondly," Tom continued, "If you're going to Honey Bluff by foot you ain't gonna get there 'til well past dark. I live there myself. Why don't you let me give you a ride?"

"Well, you're sure it isn't any trouble?" Reginald said.

"Heck, no," replied Tom. "I'd be more troubled if I thought I was leaving a fellah out here to walk all night. Throw your pack in the back and hop in."

Reginald Washington shrugged, pulled the backpack off his shoulders and dumped it in the bed of Tom's truck. Both men opened the doors of cab and got in.

Once Tom got the truck back on the road, he tried to start up some friendly chatter with the young man to put him at ease. Reginald Washington looked to be in his late twenties. He's wiry, muscular build that Tom suspected might have intimated some time in the military. The man was polite, but clearly uncomfortable, as if he wasn't quite sure what was expected of him.

"Why you headed into Honey Bluff, son?" Tom asked. "We don't get many people just walking in to town."

"I'm just visiting," Reginald replied. "I've been hitching around the area and my Pops said I have an aunt in Honey Bluff. He told me to stop in."

"You don't say," said Tom. "I'm wondering if it's anyone I know. You don't happen to be Sadie Jefferson's nephew, by any chance? She runs a farm bout a mile out of town."

"Uhh, no," said the younger man. "I don't think that's her."

Tom creased his brow and mused a bit more. "Funny. I hope you don't mind me saying this, but she's pretty much the only colored folk we got in the area. The Halls moved away bout seven years back and old Tabitha Wilson died this last spring. You sure its Honey Bluff where your relative's at?"

"Pretty sure," said Reginald. "Now that I think about it, maybe it is Sadie Jefferson. That name starts to have a ring to it. My father wrote the number down for me on a piece of paper I got in my pack."

"Well, I'll be the dickens," Tom exclaimed. "You're Sadie Jefferson's nephew. You even look like her a bit now that I think about it."

"I suppose I do," Reginald said with a smile.

"One thing I've always noticed," Tom said with a lowered voice. "You people are always real good about taking care of your own. I hope you don't mind me saying that."

"No sir, not at all," replied Reginald. "I'll tell you, wherever I go where I got family, I always know I got a bed to sleep on."

"Now that must be nice. Me, most of my family passed on. I'm the last of Humphries, I'm afraid."

"Well, I'm sorry to hear that."

"Oh, it don't matter. And you'll see why. Honey Bluff is filled with all sorts of nice folk. I've got plenty of friends and neighbors. I run an ice cream shop, see. 'The Good Ship Lollipop.' I've run it for thirty-five years. In fact, I'm just about to pay it off and make her all my own."

"Congratulations," Reginald said. 

"Yeah, it's been a dream of mine." Tom continued. "That's what keeps me hanging in there."

"So you've been here a long time?" Reginald asked. "In Honey Bluff?"

"Oh heck yeah," said Tom. "I was born here. Moved away for a bit, but couldn't keep away for long. It's just a good old town. Filled with the kindest, decentest."

"So you must know the marshes pretty well?" interrupted Reginald.

"The marshes? Sure. Heck, when I was a kid I used to be out there all the time. You could go hunting for frogs or chase egrets. Same things the young fellahs do now. They're always coming in with croakers or snakes they've picked up. I make them let the critters go. They're probably scared out of their wits"

"Got any lizards out there?" Reginald asked.

"Lizards?" replied Tom. "Sure, there's a couple different breeds. Mostly amphibious, you know. Salamanders and such."


"You planning on going lizard hunting?" asked Tom.

"No, no," Reginald said with a laugh. "I'm just curious is all. My Pops used to tell me about the animals you find out here."

 "Yeah, you can find all sorts of crazy creatures if you have the time," Tom said while slowing the truck down for the stop sign ahead. It was here Route 15 hit the main strip of Honey Bluff. 'The Good Ship Lollipop' was just a few blocks away.

"So listen," began Tom. "My shop's just around the corner. You can come in if you want and use the phone. call your Aunt. Sadie's just about twenty minutes out of town."

"Actually, I'd like to look around town a bit, before I do that," Reginald replied. "Just to get a feel for things and all."

"Well, sure, you can do that. I'm warning you, there ain't much to see. I can let you off  at Dale Murry's gas station right up here. He's got snacks for sale and a phone."

"I'd appreciate it," said Reginald.

Within ten seconds Tom had parked next to the fueling pumps of the 'Easy Gas Pit Stop.' He pointed to his left and said, "If you head down that street there you run into Mae Snell's flower shop then the Bowling Alley and the kid's park with the swings and such. A little further down in the Courthouse and Sheriff Hewly's office. Beyond that is."

"I thought you said there wasn't much to see," Reginald interjected.

"Well," Tom said bashfully. "I guess I just wanted to show off my knowledge of the place."

"Thanks for the ride, Mr. Humphries," Reginald said, opening the truck door and hopping out. He disappeared for a second while he grabbed his backpack from the truck's bed and then popped his head back in the window. "It was good meeting you. Maybe I'll see you around while I'm in town."

"Sure. C'mon by the ice cream shop," Tom replied. He waved as Reginald Washington walked off in the direction of the town park. This Reginald Washington seemed like a nice enough fellah, Tom decided. But he clearly hadn't been telling the whole story about why he was in Honey Bluff.

Tom shifted the truck into first, pulled out from the gas station and did a u-turn onto the road. Within a minute he was in coming up to the ice cream shop. Tom normally walked to work and had no reserved space for his truck so he parked right behind Ted Rully's Chevy. Rully has just turned 18, and liked all young men, had wanted a hot rod to cruise around in and pick up girls. Surprisingly, his father, reverend of the local church had bestowed the car upon his son as his birthday present. It was shiny yellow machine that Ted kept waxed and spotless.

"Afternoon, Ted" Tom said as he entered the shop. The tall, redheaded teenager was behind the counter mixing up a chocolate shake for Harvey Baines, the eighty three year old postmaster of Honey Bluff. The shop was about half full, which was pretty standard for a Saturday. A swinging tune was playing on the jukebox.

"Hey, Mr. Humphries," Ted said. "Get your business taken care of?"

"As much as possible," Tom replied, intent on avoiding the details of his trip. He'd yet to tell young Ted Rully that he might soon be out of a job.

Tom took off his coat and hung it on the rack. He then walked up to Harvey Baines and patted him on the back. Harvey jumped in his seat and turned around in his seat.

"Hello Mr. Baines," Tom said loudly.

"Wha-what's that?" Harvey asked. "Not since July."

"I said 'hello', Harvey," Tom repeated, just as loudly. "How's things down at the post office?"

"Shellfish," Harvey affirmatively replied.

"Wonderful," said Tom, he then walked around the counter and up to the cash register. He popped open the register and placed the folder with the financial documents underneath the cash tray. He turned to Ted and asked, "So how's things going? People liking those peppermint malts?"

"Yeah, I guess," replied Ted. "Couple folks ordered them. But it's the vanilla that's going like usual. I checked in back and we're running low. You're gonna need another ten quarts to get through the month."

"Yeah, I think I got an order comin' in." said Tom. He paused. "They ain't liking the peppermint though? I thought that would go like hotcakes."

"I'll tell ya what people can't get enough of," said Ted. "Those gumballs! Seems like every single customer to come through this place has gotten one. Kids are talking about them all over town."

"You don't say," said Tom. He leaned over the cash register and took a look at the machine. "I guess that fellah was right. It was all location, location, location."

"Yeah, I had one myself. They're good. Almost more like a malt ball than a gumball, you know? Kind of chewy. But really sweet"

"Mmmm," replied Tom, leaning closer to the gumball machine. "Well, I got a question for you, Ted. If these things been selling so well, how come the machine still looks like it's filled almost to the top. This don't look any different than yesterday."

"Beats me," said Ted. "But I swear people've been eating 'em. Maybe it's really magic. You know, like one of the bags in 'The Arabian Knights' or something. A bottomless gumball machine."

"Well, I suppose that's it," Tom said gamely. "Yes, I do believe you've hit it right on the head. A bottomless gumball machine." Joking aside, Tom was betting that Ted had exaggerated the popularity of gumballs in Honey Bluff. At best, the machine was a nice piece of eye candy.

Tom looked up at the clock that lay against the wall behind the jukebox. "Damn," he exclaimed. "Ted, why didn't you tell me it was past six?"

"Uhh, sorry, Mr. Humphries," Ted gulped. "I didn't know I was supposed to."

Tom walked out from the counter and through the swinging doors that led to the backroom. The room was mostly for storage or repairing equipment, but in one corner was a small combination safe. Tom walked up to it, rattled the dial and swung the door open. Inside the square box were a pile documents, a small revolver with a few sets of ammunition and the store's accumulated receipts from the past month. The cash was neatly contained in several white envelopes, one for each week. Tom pulled one envelope out, counted its contents and then put it into his pocket. He then left the back room and walked back into the service area. Ted was at the register, cashing out a young teenage couple who'd just shared a milkshake. Tom caught his eye and spoke.

"Can you keep watch over the parlor for another half hour? I've got to run over to Aplonski's before he closes."

"Sure thing, Mr. Humphries. But not much later. I promised Betty Garrison I'd take her for a cruise down to the bowling alley in the Chevy. I tell ya, Mr. Humphries, girls love a man with a fast."

Before Ted could finish his prattling, Tom was out the door and hopping into his truck. He gunned the engine and turned in the direction of the gas station he'd dropped Reginald Washington off at. At the station he took a right and drove past  Zed Beedlemen's oil change shop, 'The Honey Bluff Family Butcher', Duke Haffert's junkyard, several blocks of worn down houses and a mobile home park. Then he pulled into the parking lot in front of a grey two story building with a overhanging marquee that carried the words: Aplonski's Barber Shop and Drug Emporium. Tom jumped out of his truck and entered the store.

"Evening Tom," came the low rumbling voice of Bill Miller, the town barber. He was finishing off a buzz cut for Petey Rodriguez, a middle aged, half Mexican fellah who supplemented his income as a peach farmer with what he could make selling moonshine.

Miller drew a slow breath. "I suppose you're looking for Neil."

"R-Right," said Tom. There was something about the drooping but watchful eyes of the sixty year old barber that made him uneasy. Miller moved slow, like a rhino, but he was tall and carried an authoritative weight. The string of tattoos that ran up his arms reminded Tom of Miller's military career. He might have trouble catching you, but if he did, watch out!

"He's in the back," Miller said, motioning past two old-west style-swinging doors at the far side of the room. "You know where to find him."

Those who were simply the occasional customer of Aplonski's never saw the back office of the barbershop/pharmacy. But Tom had been coming here for years and there was little of the joint he hadn't seen.  He breezed past the swinging doors and quickly walked down the ensuing hall. After about ten feet he came to a door on the right. It was slightly ajar. He knocked.

"Come on in, Tom." came a voice from the office. Tom gently pushed open the door and peered inside. It was small room with a single desk. Three of the walls were covered with shelves and on those shelves were a variety of pharmaceuticals. On the fourth wall were several framed certifications, approving Neil Aplonski as a licensed purveyor of medicines. Neil himself sat behind the desk, rolling back and forth in his wheelchair.

"I'm over here, Tom. You're not going to hit me with the door."

"Sorry, Neil," said Tom bashfully. "I just try to be careful after that one time."

"Certainly, certainly," said Neil. "Better safe than sorry."

Neil Aplonski was in his early forties but could have passed for ten years older. He wore a thin but unkempt moustache and beard, and had a large belly. His arms had some heft to them from wheeling himself about all the time but his legs stopped of at the knees. A crocodile had gotten to Neil when he was a young boy.

Neil wheeled himself back and then over to one of the shelves. He rummaged about and found a package wrapped in a brown paper bag. "We weren't sure if we were going to see you this week," he mused.

"Yeah, well, it's been a busy time and all." Tom said, shifting uncomfortably.

"I heard," said Neil. "I understand you've got a darling new gumball machine."

"Well, I'll be," Tom said, breaking into a smile. "I didn't know word had made it this far."

"Oh, I've done more than hear about, dear fellow. One of Bill's numerous grandchildren brought me back a gumball to try. It was quite delicious."

"Yeah, that what people been saying," said Tom. "Gonna make me a millionaire off gumballs."

"And there are certainly something to look at, those candies. All the pretty colors glimmering away. I almost couldn't bring myself to put it into my mouth. And you know I usually have no problem putting things in my mouth, don't you Tom?" Neil patted his stomach appreciatively.

"Uhh, yeah," replied Tom. "Maybe I can send Ted by with a few more for you. Before they run out."

"Mmmm, I'd like that Tom. And, here's what you came for." He handed Tom the package.

"Thanks," said Tom as he pulled out the envelope he'd removed from the safe. He handed it to Neil.

Aplonski pulled out the bills and leafed through them. "Perfect. Always nice doing business with you," he intoned.

Tom said a quick farewell and left the office. He walked back down the hall and through the swinging doors into the barbershop. The lights were on but the room was empty. Tom briskly walked up to the glass door and opened the door. Stepping out into the evening he felt a cool breeze. Tom headed for his truck.

"Let me ask you something," came the deep voice of Bill Miller. Tom jumped a bit, but not enough to notice. He turned and saw that Miller was sitting outside in chair parked several feet from  the entrance. A wad of chaw was planted between Miller's front lip and gums. By his feet was a tin can filling up with tobacco juice.

"Bill!" Tom said. "Didn't see you there."

"Let me ask you something," Miller repeated in a hoarse voice not much past a whisper. "When are you gonna let me cut your hair? You look like a walking thistlebrush."

"Oh, I dunno, Bill," said Tom. "At my age I got to keep all the hair I got. If anyone cuts it off, I'm afraid it may not come back."

Bill Miller grunted and then spat out a bit of tobacco juice into the can. A silence hung in the air. Tom waited for the right moment to excuse himself but it didn't seem to be coming.

Then Miller waved one of his ink covered arms upward. "Look at them stars starting to come out. Looks like they'll be something to see tonight."

Tom looked up into the sky. It was still dusk but a few stars were making themselves visible in the eastern section. "Beautiful. That'll be something to see."

Miller continued. "The thing I can never quite wrap my head around when it comes to stars? All these scientists tell us we're not really seeing what we think we are. The stars we're seeing are millions of years old. Hell, they might not even be there any more."

"Yeah, that's something," Tom replied. He shifted the package he'd gotten from Aplonski from one hand to the other.

"Don't make much sense to me. Thinking you're seeing something when you ain't really. That make much sense to you Tom?"

Tom wanted to play dumb and end the conversation as soon as possible. But he knew Miller would see through that. "Well, I know starlight is like everything else: it takes time to travel. And some of these stars are mighty far away. The universe is a big place."

Miller spat out another mouthful of brown saliva. He looked at Tom quizzically, like he was about to ask another question. Then he looked back up at the night sky and squinted his eyes. "I suppose it is," was all he said.

Tom sensed his moment. "Well, I got to be getting on Bill," he said. "I'll see you around."

"I know it," came Miller's reply. He was still craning his neck looking upward. 

Tom walked to his truck while thinking about what an odd pair Miller and Aplonski were. If there was any sort of blemish on the town of Honey Bluff, they were it. Tom got in the cab, gunned the engine and drove off.

While driving back past the mobile home park, Tom reached over and opened the truck's glove compartment. He threw in the package he purchased from Aplonski. Up ahead was a stop sign and Tom eased of the gas and rolled to a stop. Stopping was a formality since there were no other cars on the road. Tom looked up over to his left into the piles of wreckage that were Duke Haffert's salvage yard. The lot was littered with old cars, kitchen appliances, giant rusting pipes and various odds and ends. Tom pressed down on the accelerator and drove through the intersection.

Duke did business out of a beaten down one story building that was just off the road. But it was the open yard that contained Duke's sellable items. The yard was cordoned off by a ten-foot tall fence and when Duke closed out the place each evening, he'd release his armada of junkyard dogs to patrol the area. As Tom approached the salvage yard he saw a commotion occurring. Several men were in the fenced off lot and two seemed to be engaged in fisticuffs while the others jeered them on. It was too dark for Tom to get a good look at who the men were but he slowed the truck to a stop and pulled off on the right side of the road, across from Duke's yard. Tom rolled down his driver's window and peered into the dusk.

As his eye's adjusted to the darkness Tom was able to recognize the form of Duke Haffert as one of the men tussling. Haffert was easy to recognize because of the stringy red hair that ran past his shoulders and a frizzy beard that was close to a half foot in length. As always, he was dressed in a pair of grease spattered blue overalls that covered a body well past 250 pounds in weight. Encircling Duke and the other man were a variety of Duke's cronies - worn down ne'er-do-wells who spent most nights drinking beer in front of Duke's yard or in the local saloon.

For some reason, the identity of the other fighter still evaded Tom. It was getting darker by the minute and the man seemed to fade in and out of the shadows as he traded blows with Haffert. The man was smaller than the salvage yard operator, but seemed more than capable of holding his own. It wasn't until Tom hopped out of his truck and started walking towards the fence did Tom realize that it was the hitchhiker he'd brought into Honey Bluff this very afternoon. It was Reginald Washington.

He ran to the fence and rattled it to get the attention of Duke and his cohorts. "Duke," he called out. "What the hell do you think you're doing to that boy?!"

"Same thing I do any time I catch someone thievin' on my property!" replied the surly redhead. "Less you think I should let the dogs have him?"

The dogs were still held in the pen Duke kept in the back of his lot but they were making ample uproar in an effort to let their owner know that they'd like to be part of the action.

"Stay out of this, Tom," called out Danny McDouglas, a scrawny wretch of a man who happened to be the father of Skeeter, one of Timmy Thompson friends.

Reginald Washington dodged a clumsy punch from Duke and managed to use the momentum to throw Duke to the ground. He looked over at Tom but didn't say a word. Blood ran down his from his nose onto his shirt.

A flurry of thoughts raced through Tom's mind. Even if he could get over the fence there was no way he had a chance of stopping the fight. Duke easily outweighed him, and Tom had no doubt that Haffert's friends would pick up the slack against Reginald were Duke somehow incapacitated. But Tom couldn't stand by and do nothing.

Just then, the problem was taken out of his hands. With an unapologetic squeal of tires and upheaval of much dust, Sheriff Hewly's cruiser pulled into the salvage yard's front parking area. The door of the car opened and Hewly stepped out, both hands wrapped around a the shotgun he kept in a gunrack in the cruiser. The sheriff strode over to the door of the fence. The fighters momentarily paused.

"Haffert," Hewly called out. "What the hell is going on here? Your dogs are about ready to raise the dead out here."

"This ain't none of your business, Sheriff," Duke replied, spitting out a crimson wad of spit and part of a tooth. "I caught this one scrounging around on my lot and I don't take to robbers."

"That may be," said Hewly. "But I'm the law around here. If you want to make an accusation, you have to make a formal complaint. Now let me in!" Hewly rattled the door of the fence that was held closed by a chain lock.

"This is my property, Sheriff. You can't just demand."

Duke was interrupted by a loud gunshot as the Sheriff fired his rifle at the lock. Hewly then unwrapped the chain, kicked open the door and walked onto the lot, gun in hand. "What was that you were saying, Duke? I didn't quite hear you."

Duke fumed and wiped some of the spit and blood off his beard. He stepped back from Reginald. The other men shifted uneasily.

Hewly walked up to Reginald. "What's your name son? I think I'd remember seeing you around here before."

"Reginald Washington, sir,"

Tom, who was still peering through the grid of the fence, spoke up. "I can vouch for him, Richard. I drove him into town just this afternoon."

Hewly looked over at Tom. He didn't like being called by his first name when he was on the job. "That so, Tom. You just met this fellah and you can already vouch for him?"

Tom didn't have a response.

"He was stealin'!" fumed Duke. "Look in his pack. You're gonna find something that don't belong there." Duke pointed at the same backpack Reginald had carried when he'd caught the ride in from Tom. It had been tossed off to a corner of the lot sometime during the brawl.

Hewly walked up to the pack and gave it a kick. He looked at Reginald. "That true, Washington? Am I going to find anything in there that ain't yours?"

Reginald sighed. "I'd prefer you not look at my personal items Sheriff. I don't think you have the right to."

"As you've seen, we do things a little differently in Honey Bluff," drawled Hewly. He looked over at Duke's drunken accomplices. "McDouglas," he called out. "Take a gander at this here sack. Danny McDouglas walked up to the pack.

"I'll repeat myself, Sheriff," said Reginald. "You don't have the right to look through my things."

"I'm not," replied the Sheriff. He pointed at Danny. "He is."

Danny unzipped the backpack. Then he picked it up off the ground and upturned it so that its contents spilled to the ground. Danny started rifling through the items.

"You see anything?" asked the Sheriff. "Anything that don't belong there?"

Danny made grumbling sounds. The bag's contents appeared pretty ordinary. Clothes, a watch, a notebook populated with extensive scrawlings. "Waitasec," he suddenly said.

"What's that?" the Sheriff said.

"This don't look right," Danny said with a grin. He held up a gleaming, silver colored automatic pistol.

"Well, I'll be," said Sheriff Hewly, grabbing the weapon away from Danny and giving it a once over. "That's a honey of a piece. A helluva lot nicer than what I have to carry around." He looked at Reginald. "You supposed to have this?"

"That is my pistol, yes," replied Reginald.

"Let me put it this way. Are you licensed to carry it?"

Reginald was silent.

"All right, I think I see what's going on here," said Hewly. "We're going to have to sort all this out at the station. C'mon." He waved his gun at Reginald.

"Hewly, you know this is nonsense!" called out Tom.

"Humphries!" Hewly barked. "When you're the sheriff, then you can run the show. Until then, this is my command. I don't want people walking around with enough firepower to recreate the OK Corral!"

Reginald walked up to the pile of his possessions that were at the feet of Danny McDouglas. "Pick it up," he growled at Danny.

"What the hell.?" Danny said.

"Pick it up McDouglas," Sheriff Hewly said.

McDouglas knelt down and gathered the spilt belongings. He stuffed them back in the backpack and handed it to Reginald.

Walked through the gate and opened the back door of his cruiser. "Get in," he said. Reginald complied. Then Hewly waved his gun at Haffert. "You too, Duke. It's been too long since you've been down to lockup. We've missed you."

"But he was thievin' on my prop." Duke started to protest. Hewly's glare silenced him in mid sentence. He ambled over to the police car and got in the back seat next to Reginald.

"The rest of you. Go home!" called out Hewly. "Tom, get out of here and mind your own business from now on." Then he got in his vehicle and pulled out on to the street, heading in the direction of the county jail.

Tom watched as the leftovers of Haffert's crew groused and then found another chain for the gate. Danny McDouglas went out to the dog pens and released the shaggy, snarling collection of hounds that had been baying throughout the incident. Tom walked away from the fence, crossed the street and got back in the cab of his pickup. He started the engine and drove the rest of the way to his apartment. It was now night and the same stars Bill Miller had been philosophizing about were now coming out in full force.

Tom arrived in front of his small apartment and parked the truck in front. He grabbed the package out of the glove compartment and went inside. The truck sat alone, barely visible in the dim moonlight.

After about thirty minutes, Tom came back outside. He was wearing his workpants and a t-shirt which gave less than needed protection from the cool night air. Tom walked out onto the road that ran past his apartment and looked ahead. Across the street from his lodging was a giant field, open acreage that eventually met up with the surrounding farmland of the area. Tom looked up into the night sky and gazed at the stars. They seemed to be pulsating, in time with the same heartbeat that he could feel pumping through the veins in his temple. A deep numbness washed down his body, starting at his temples and dissipating at his knees. Then another wave of numbness. Then another. I wide grin crossed Tom's face. Tears started to well in his eyes

That's when it dawned in him. On any other evening when he'd wander outside the apartment, there was always a subtle collection of sounds in the night air. Crickets chirping, the occasional owl hoot, the rumble of grass as nocturnal critters set about their business. But this night, there was nothing but silence. There was no movement in the surrounding nature. The air was still. With that realization, the barest hint of dread secured its place in the pit of Tom's stomach and began to circulate throughout his system. He didn't know what it was or why, but Tom Humphries knew that something was about to go very wrong in the town of Honey Bluff.


Click here for Part III


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