“The Box Maker” nominated for the 2016 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award for Short Fiction.
Emory Duvall practices his simple carpentry trade, knows everyone in town, and stays out of trouble. But when a young gunslinger pulls iron on him and makes an unusual request, trouble lands in Duvall’s lap. Now, the carpenter must figure out how to avoid getting shot…and how many coffins he will have to make.
“I make boxes,” Emory Duvall said. His hands, held above his head, shook in his sleeves. The small, round glasses, having slid down his nose on account of the sweat pouring off his forehead, perched precariously. You got the impression a good strong wind might just come by and knock them off, landing in the sandy ground of Main Street.
“I know you make boxes,” the stranger said. He switched his gun to his left hand and wiped the palm of his right on his pants. “What I asked is do you make boxes you could put a man in?” He glanced around, looking to see if there were prying eyes spying on them. Seeing none, he gripped the pistol with his newly dried right hand and wiped his left.
Duvall gulped, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down over the bandana wrapped around his neck. “I can build any size box you want, mister.” He scrunched his nose, trying to keep his lenses on his face. The movement caused whatever friction holding them on to fail. His glasses fell to the ground.
Squinting with the sudden blurriness of his sight, Duvall indicated the glasses. “May I?”
The stranger paused. The midday sun bore down on the pair. “Look, if I put away my iron, you gon’ to run or holler?”
For the first time since the stranger arrived at his shop, Duvall smiled. “Mister, I can’t run further than five feet without my spectacles.” He said the word ‘can’t’ by adding an extra ‘i’ in the middle. “But if you want me to build you a box of any size, I’m gonna need my glasses.”
The stranger narrowed his eyes. “No funny business, you hear?”
“Mister,” Duvall said, “I don’t even wear a gun.” He tilted his head down to indicate his waist. Other than a thick leather belt of tools dangling from his hips, there was no sign of a gun. His denim pants were stained dark with sweat. Even under the thatched awning of his cutting area just outside his shop, it was nearly a hundred degrees and getting hotter by the minute.
The stranger nodded and, when Duvall didn’t move, he said, “All right.” He took a step back, giving himself a better line of sight toward the heart of town. As Duvall crouched down and felt for his glasses, the man said, “Tell you what, box man. I’m a’gonna holster my piece, so’s we can talk, man to man. But don’t be fooled. I can draw faster’en anybody you know. You try anything, even a call for help, and that’s the last thing you’ll ever say.” With that, the stranger slid his Colt revolver back into the holster.
Duvall found his glasses and wiped the dust off of them with part of the bandana hanging around his neck. He replaced the lenses and got a better look at the stranger. Judging by stubble, Duvall guessed the man to be in his early twenties. The man’s face had scars that appeared to be self-inflicted while shaving. The young man’s clothes were road dusty and disheveled, sweat staining his arm pits, his stomach, and along the thigh where the holster rested. The hat atop the man’s head used to be sharper, cleaner, but had seen much better days. Judging by the way the hat rested on the man’s ears, Duvall thought the inner head band must’ve worn off.
Smiling at the stranger, Duvall said, “You got a name?”
Put off by Duvall’s informality, the man said, “Ain’t you scared a’me?”
“Mister, I make boxes, but I also make coffins. A man who makes coffins sees a lot of dead folk. Those dead people get dead any number of ways. Bullets and violence are only part of it. You startled me a few minutes ago, that’s all.”
He started patting his shirt to dry off his hands. The action caused the stranger to flinch and reach for his gun. Duvall stopped in mid wipe, his smile dropping. “I ain’t going to try anything. I just want you to know that.” Still, his hands shook and he gripped his shirt to try to hide that fact. “Now, again, you got a name?”
The man relaxed and stood straighter. “Murray.”
“Duvall. I’d shake your hand, but mine’s a bit dirty.”
Murray extended his hand. “Mine’s dirty, too.”
The two men shook hands, the sweat sliding between their palms.
“Now,” Duvall said, “you mentioned something about a box, a coffin I assume by your asking. Why do you need a coffin?”
Murray scrunched up his face. “Why do you think I need a coffin? I need to put a man in it.” He chewed his bottom lip with teeth that hadn’t seen a toothbrush in many a day.
Duvall chuckled a bit. “I know that, Mr. Murray. But I need to know who it’s for. You know, for the measurements and such.”
Glancing this way and that, his eyes staying an inordinate amount of time down toward the heart of town, Murray said, “It’s for me.”