" ' He strode down the main street, his jet black hat pulled low over his golden brow, his great black coat flapping behind him in the breeze. Casually, he pulled open the coat, revealing the handle of the six-shooter known to have downed more than a hundred outlaws. Chet Remington had arrived. And he was ready to bring justice to the people!' "
"Cody!" Jimmy called from the woodpile. "When you're done shoveling that horse manure, there's a whole pile of worthwhile fertilizer right here just waitin' to be spread."
"And you promised to do it yesterday," Kid chimed in as he pitched another forkful of hay.
"And the day before that," Buck added from over by the barn.
"Cody! Do you hear me?" Jimmy yelled impatiently. But the blonde rider's face remained buried in the dog-eared ten-cent novel, his rump firmly planted on the top rung of the corral fence where it had been happily situated since lunchtime.
"Alright, that is it!" Jimmy grumbled. He flung the axe into the chopping block. It landed with a 'thwack' that made both Buck and Kid jump to attention and rush over to the rider's side.
"Hold on, Jimmy," Buck cautioned, as Hickock stalked toward the corral. He rested a firm hand on Jimmy's arm. "I know how to get his attention. Hey Cody!" he called. "Supper's on!"
Cody's head bounced up like a dog who'd just been thrown a bone. "Huh?"
Jimmy turned to Buck, wide-eyed.
"Works every time," Buck grinned.
"You about ready to start earnin' your keep?" Jimmy snarled at Cody, "or are you gonna keep gnawin' our ears off with that Chuck Derringer bull all day?"
"It ain't Chuck Derringer, Jimmy," Cody corrected, jumping off the fence with a flourish. "It's Chet Remington, the most fearless gunfighter that ever strapped on a six-shooter."
He was met with a trio of doubtful faces.
"I can prove it!" Cody insisted. "Once, he was out huntin' down a pack of horse thieves and he tracked 'em to a saloon in Durango. He sauntered into that saloon and called 'em all out. Before anyone knew it, bullets was flyin' left and right—whizzin' right past old Chet. Everyone ducked for cover. But Chet, he just smiled. He didn't even flinch. Well, that alone caused them outlaws to shake in their boots. Chet casually pulled out his pearl-handled revolver and said to 'em, 'If any one of you boys wants to keep a semblance of your manhood intact, I suggest you drop your guns right now and give yourself up!' And with that, every one of them horse thieves dropped his guns and fell to his knees in a heap of tears, beggin' Chet to be easy on him."
"You been dipping into Teaspoon's moonshine again?" Kid inquired.
"What?" Cody asked.
"Well, you have to admit it, Cody," Kid said, "it does sound a little far-fetched. I never heard of a bunch of outlaws crying like sissies in front of a whole roomful of people."
"And no one man could wrangle a whole gang of thieves all at once like that—let alone stand down a shower of bullets," Jimmy put in.
Cody shook his head sadly. "Jimmy, you just don't understand folks like Chet and me."
"Like Chet and you?" Jimmy asked incredulously.
"Yeah. Me and Chet, we've got a lot in common. We're both dapper and tall and handsome and great with the ladies."
"You both have egos the size of Texas . . ." Kid added smoothly.
" And most of all, ain't neither of us afraid of anything."
"Oh come on, Cody," Buck interjected. "Everybody's afraid of something. I for one know Jimmy here's afraid of spiders. Even the little bitty ones."
"That ain't true!" Jimmy swore. "I'm not afraid of 'em. I just ain't particularly fond of 'em." He shoved Buck. "But what about you? You get panicked whenever you hear an owl hoot—let alone when you see one. At least a spider's a real threat. You can get bit by one and maybe die. But what's an owl gonna do to you? Peck you to death?"
Buck's eyes darkened. "That's not funny, Jimmy."
"Simmer down, you guys," Kid warned. "Cody, Buck's right. Everyone's got some kind of fear. I'll admit, I can't stand being in closed-in places. Always feels like the walls are coming in on me. It's pretty scary sometimes."
"I feel for you boys, but I can't say as I share in your experience," Cody admitted. "I'm a real man, and real men like me ain't afraid of nothin'."
"Well, I'm a man—or at least I was last time I checked," Kid responded. "And I'm telling you, Cody, being afraid of something doesn't make you less of one."
Cody shook his head. "I beg to differ with you there, Kid. Some folks, like me and Chet, were born full up with courage. We were meant to step out boldly and be heroes in this world. And some folks, like you boys, just weren't. Now if you'll excuse me," he said, as he made his way in between a stunned Kid and Buck, "I just learned today that the latest installment of the Chet Remington series is sitting over in Tompkins' store, just dying to make my acquaintance."
"Hey wait a minute!" Jimmy called as Cody sauntered past the blacksmith's and into town. "You got chores to do here! If you go to Tompkins, so help me Cody, you will NOT want to come back tonight!"
But it was no use. Cody had already turned the corner, his head filled with the anticipation of reading new and fantastic tales, his ears oblivious to Jimmy's threats.
"Hey there, Tompkins!" Cody called as he entered the mercantile. Tompkins, who had been dusting the shelves behind the front counter, turned toward the rider.
" Well, hello Mr. Cody," came his amicable reply. "What can I do for you this evening?" No matter how Tompkins disliked the rest of that rowdy crew at the Pony Express station, he just had to greet Cody with a smile. For, whenever Cody entered his store, he always left with at least five dollars in purchases. "You finally decide to buy that pearl handled pocketknife you been admiring for the last week? Got it right here."
"Not tonight, Tompkins. I'm after something even better than that."
Tompkins' eyes lit up. "Oh, then you must be after that prized saddle in the window there. Came all the way from Spain, hand crafted by the best leather workers in the world. You arrived just in time. Mr. Callahan's had his eye on that beauty."
"Nope. I'm not here for that, neither," Cody smiled. "I am here to procure the latest installment of the Chet Remington series which I hear you just got in stock this very day."
Tompkins' face fell. "A dime novel?"
"Only the best!" Cody replied.
"Are you sure you don't want. . ." Tompkins began, but he was interrupted by the welcome sound of the door bell announcing two well-dressed gentleman.
Ah, Tompkins thought. By the looks of them, they're sure to spend at least ten dollars each.
"Excuse me, Mr. Cody," he mumbled absently, his eyes drawn over the rider's shoulder to the more promising customers.
"Uh, Tompkins," Cody waved a hand in front of the shopkeepers eyes. "I was here first. And I aim to buy my novel. Now can you get it for me?"
"Huh? Oh, yes, your novel. Well Mr. Cody, I'm sorry but I haven't had time to unload that shipment yet. It's still boxed up in the storage room downstairs. If you come back tomorrow. . ."
"I don't want to come back tomorrow. I want the book now."
Tompkins sighed in frustration. Sometimes that boy is just like a tick on a dog, he thought. "Cody, if you want it that bad, here. Take this candle and go down into the storage room and find it yourself. I've got customers to tend to." He lit the tiny stub of a candle, handed it to Cody, and without another word, snaked his way out from behind the counter to join his new customers.
"With that kind of service, it's a wonder he sells anything at all," Cody snorted. But at least he would be able to get his book, and that's all that really mattered. He carefully guarded the candle's flame, opened the door behind the counter, and stepped down the stairs.
The staircase was deep and dark. The orange light from the candle cast ghoulish shadows on the walls. He reached the bottom of the staircase and lifted his candle toward the door in front of him. The blackened image of a spider scuttled across the smooth wood. His spindly legs appeared eerily distorted in the flickering candlelight.
"Good thing Jimmy ain't here. He'd be cryin' for his mamma about now," he chuckled.
He reached for the doorknob and twisted it open. The room was small and cluttered with boxes and crates of every shape and size. Most of the crates had been opened, but in the center of the room stood a stack that appeared untouched. "I'll bet you're in one of these, Chet." He stepped into the room and instinctively closed the door behind him.
He'd just reached the stack of crates when he heard a muffled cry above him.
"Hey, just what do you think you're. . ." he heard Tompkins shout. "No! No, please!" The high, strained voice hardly resembled the shopkeeper's normal baritone. Then he heard the heavy thud, the scrambling footsteps, and the unceremonious slam of the front door.
"Tompkins?" Cody called. "Tompkins, you OK?" But he was met only with silence. "Well of course he couldn't hear me from all the way down here," he reasoned. "I better go check on him."
He headed for the door and reached for the doorknob. He gave it a turn, but the door did not open. Once more, he attempted to turn the knob, but the door still did not budge. His irritation quickly mounted. "Alright, if it's a fight you want, it's a fight you will get!" he yelled. "I'm stronger than any door." He set the candle down, backed up a few paces, and charged.
"Oh! Aaahh!" he cried, reaching for his throbbing shoulder. But the pain only intensified his determination. Gritting his teeth, he gathered all his strength together threw himself face first at the door.
He immediately regretted it.
"Oooh, my head!" he moaned, closing his eyes against the pain. He stumbled backward a few paces, reeling from the impact. It wasn't until he'd shaken his head clear and opened his eyes that he realized he was standing in complete and utter darkness.
He flung his head around, his eyes struggling to pierce through the black veil that surrounded him. His heart began to race. Where'd that candle get to? It was then that he felt something soft give way under his boot. He knelt down and felt for the object. He was met with the candle's warm waxy remains and, beneath that, a flattened tin candlestick holder.
"Oh no," he mourned, "I squashed the damn candle! Now what am I gonna do?"
He felt his breath quicken as he sat down in a heap on the floor. A cold, damp film appeared on his palms. "Hold yourself together, Cody," he said, rubbing his hands on his shirtfront. "It's only a little dark. It ain't that bad. . ."
But it was that bad, and Cody knew it. Never in all his days had he admitted it to anyone, but there was something about pitch darkness that always seemed to rattle his bones. Who knows who or, more importantly, what lay hidden in the darkness? Cody had heard the stories of evil creatures, cloaked in the blackest night, that snatched people away while they were fast asleep in their beds. That's why he always made sure he had a bunk by the window where the moon and stars could stand watch for him against those unknown demons. True, there were nights when clouds covered the celestial lights, but Cody didn't mind the dark as much during those times. With his friends surrounding him as they slept in the bunkhouse, the fear wasn't near as intense as it would be if he were alone.
Alone. The very word made his blood run cold. Alone in the dark, no one would know where he was. Alone in the dark, no one would hear his screams of terror as a wild-eyed wooly mountain monster dragged him off to his cave to turn him into Cody stew.
"Stop!" he cried. "That is enough of that. I am a real man. I'm not afraid of anything! I just gotta think. Now, what would Chet Remington do in this situation?" He pondered that for a moment and then the revelation hit him. "What am I thinking? I'm in a mercantile storeroom for goodness sakes! Tompkins must have millions of candles and matches sitting somewhere in these crates. All I gotta do is find them."
He stood up and stretched his hands way out before him, searching for an open crate. He'd only taken two steps when he heard a strange scratching sound from across the room. He turned slowly. "What's that?" he whispered breathlessly. The scratching sounded again, closer this time. Cody gulped. "Get. . .get away from me, you hear?" he took a step backward. "Ain't no mountain monster gonna mount William F. Cody's head on his wall—not if I have anything to say about it!" Then, he felt something hairy brush against his leg. "Aaah!" he cried. He spun around and ran full speed right into a pile of heavy crates.
For a second, Cody lay on the floor so stunned he could barely remember how to blink. Then, slowly, he began to feel his arms and legs again. "Ugh," he moaned, "feels like I got a hangover three times over. Chet Remington never went through nothin' like this."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that, Mr. Cody."
Cody bolted up. "Who's there?"
"Over here," the voice called.
Cody turned his head toward the sound and his jaw dropped. It couldn't be! There, sitting on the stack of unopened crates in the center of the room was none other than Chet Remington, bathed in a heavenly light. He looked exactly as Cody had imagined him. His jet-black hat was pulled low over his brow. His golden locks flowed down his shoulders onto the long black great coat that he always wore. The coat was open to reveal the smooth pearl-handled six shooter that was his trademark. His deep blue eyes, when Cody rested his gaze upon them, were kind. Yet, in their depths, they held the promise of turning cold as ice if any man should cross him with evil intentions.
"Chet Remington," Cody sputtered, "Wha. . .what are you doing here? How'd you get in here?"
"That's not important, Mr. Cody," he said, pulling out a cigar from his vest pocket. "What is important is this problem you seem to have with a fear of the dark."
"What fear?" Cody asked innocently.
Chet casually lit his cigar and savored a few puffs. He looked at Cody from beneath the brim of his hat with cold eyes. "You know better than anyone how I feel about deception, Mr. Cody. You can't lie to me."
Cody hung his head. He hoped Chet couldn't see him blush. "I. . .I know. It's just that bein' afraid—especially of somethin' like the dark—well, it just ain't manly."
"Whoever said that?" Chet asked.
"Well, I guess nobody's ever outright said it, but all the real men in the world that I've ever seen—they don't ever seem to be afraid of anything. I mean, just look at you, Chet. You can stand up to bandits and sharpshooters and all that without even flinchin'."
"Well, Mr. Cody, the truth of the matter is that everyone has fears. Even me."
Cody's eyes went wide. "You? What could you possibly be afraid of?"
"The number thirteen."
"Thirteen. Even just saying that word makes my skin crawl. It's my one weakness—my one superstitious fear." He took a puff on his cigar. "I try and stay home on the thirteenth of every month as I'm sure I'd never make it through to the fourteenth if I were out hunting bandits. If I'm playing poker and I draw cards adding up to thirteen, I quit and beat it out of there as soon as I can."
"That can't be, Chet," Cody objected. "I ain't never heard of anything about that in any of your books."
"You know when I walk into a saloon and count the people first?"
"You mean to make sure that you have enough bullets to kill every one of 'em if they all happen to turn out to be outlaws?"
"Yep," Chet nodded. "Well, the real reason I count the people first is just to make sure there aren't thirteen people in the room." He sighed and hung his head a little. "Like you, Mr. Cody, I've spent years hiding my fears. I'm 'Chet Remington,' the hero, the perfect man. Well, I'll tell you Mr. Cody, even heroes are afraid of something. And it's a real man who will admit to those fears and let them be. That's why, in my next novel, I've decided to face my fears and hunt down a gang of thirteen cattle rustlers."
"That must take a lot of courage for you to do, Chet," Cody answered seriously.
"That it does, Mr. Cody. But I've discovered that courage isn't just about dodging bullets and stopping runaway stagecoaches. Courage is also about being comfortable with yourself—with all of who you are—including that part of you that is afraid sometimes."
"Well, I guess when you put it that way, it don't seem so silly to be scared," Cody reasoned.
Chet smiled, flashing a perfect set of white teeth at the rider. "You got that right, my friend."
Cody's face brightened. "You really consider me a friend, Chet?"
"I do." His eyes softened into a lustrous blue. "I believe we have quite a lot in common." He pulled out a shining gold pocket watch from his vest. "Well, Mr. Cody, it's about time I go."
Cody scurried to his feet. "Already? You barely got here!"
"Don't worry," he replied smoothly as he replaced his watch and rose to his feet. "We'll catch up with each other again when you open my latest novel. Until then!" He tipped his hat and disappeared into the darkness.
"But Chet. . .you can't leave yet! Chet! Chet!"
"Cody, wake up."
"What?" Cody croaked. Slowly, he opened his eyes and found himself staring up into Teaspoon's face.
The Marshal let out a sigh of relief. "Thought we might have lost you there, son. Took a while for you to open those eyes of yours."
Cody shook his head and glanced around at the dozens of crates that surrounded him. He was still in Tompkins' storeroom. The door was now open and, standing just inside the room, he could make out the figures of both Kid and Jimmy.
Once he saw the boys, the events that led him into this strange predicament flooded back into his mind. "I was comin' down to get the novel and somethin' happened. . .Tompkins! Is he all right? What happened to him? How long have I been down here?"
"Whoa, hold your horses, Cody," Teaspoon said as he helped the rider sit up. "Looks like Tompkins was robbed just after you wandered down here last night," he explained.
"Found him unconscious behind his front counter this morning with a good-sized knot on his head," Kid added. "We didn't know where you were until he woke up and remembered you'd come down here. Looks like you were locked in this room all night."
"Why didn't you come lookin' for me?" Cody asked angrily.
"Why should we, the way you were actin' all high and mighty," Jimmy replied. "We figured you knew well enough that we'd all give you hell for ducking out of your chores and you decided to go read your ten-cent trash out on the prairie someplace."
Cody sighed. "Well, I guess I deserved bein' stuck here all night." He looked sheepishly over to the two riders. He could tell they were both still a little upset with him, and he honestly couldn't blame them. "It was wrong of me to ignore my responsibilities like that."
"Well, if you want to know the truth," Jimmy added quietly, "when we all woke up and you still hadn't come home, we were all a little scared about what might have happened to you."
"And I'll tell you the truth, Jimmy," Cody replied as he stood up. "I was scared myself, sittin' down here in the dark all alone."
"You were scared?" Kid questioned with a smile.
"Yessir," Cody admitted. "You were right, Kid. Everybody's got somethin' to be afraid of. And it don't make anyone less of a man. Why, even Chet Remington himself. . ."
"Enough with the Chet Remington garbage!" Jimmy cried.
"All right, all right," Cody said as he walked out the door. "I better get back to the station. I've got a lot of manure to spread."
"Come on you boys," Teaspoon said as he started up the staircase.
But Kid and Jimmy just stared at one another, amazed. "Did Cody just say he's going to work?" Kid asked.
"Sounds like it," Jimmy replied. "Boy, Cody should get locked in Tompkins' storeroom more often!"