Introductory Note From the Author
I. Hardy as They Come
“The Onion of the West?” he cackles. “What sort of podunk name is that, boy?” I shrug.
“That’s just what they call me,” I reply, sliding my hands into my pockets. I rock back and forth on my heels. The sun glints off my gun holster. “I don’t make the titles ’round these parts. I’m just the sheriff in Heaven’s Bounty.”
“Ooh, I bet you is,” he sneers, slipping his thumbs into his belt loops. As he does so, his holster glints, too. He smirks. “Ain’t you a little young to be playin’ sheriff, son?” I continue to rock back and forth on my heels. His smirk slips away. After a long moment of silence, he spits onto the ground, leaving a black tobacco stain on the dirt of Main Street.
“Folks call me Dirty Dog Akimbo,” he growls, “But we’re so far out in the middle of nowhere, I reckon you ain’t got wind of me yet, ain’t ya.”
“And why do they call you Dirty Dog Akimbo?” I say all polite-like.
“’Cuz I play dirtier than a dog in mud, that’s why,” he spits angrily, “an’ you best keep that in mind when I stuff your chest full of bullets, boy!” I shrug again. He blusters. “Well, then, ain’t ya gonna tell me why they call you ‘The Onion of the West?’” I stop rocking on my heels.
“Some say it’s ’cuz I can make a grown man cry,” I reply, a smile on the edges of my mouth. I kick the dirt and chuckle. “But I reckon it’s ’cuz onions are so dang hardy. See, Mister Akimbo, onions are tough. They just keep on coming back, no matter what hits ’em. They’s one of the hardiest growing things on God’s green earth.” I grin at him all sly-like. “Guess the folk here reckon I is, too.”
He scowls as I tip my hat to him.
“The name’s Allium,” I say, “and I’m as hardy as they come.”
II. Ain’t No Lily
When I was just a young ’un, other kids used to call me “Lily of the West” — ’cuz I had long hair, and was so small, and was a bit of a dandy, I reckon. That changed when I was eleven, and Ma first taught me how to shoot. Had me shoot at cans sitting on the farm fence. Hit four outta six on my first try. Six outta six on my second. I was so dang good, she said I’d outdraw Sheriff Shoal by thirteen. By fourteen, nobody called me Lily of the West no more. I never told Ma or Pa about it — I didn’t want them to see me get all ruffled. But at the age of twenty-six, I did tell Sheriff Perseid Falls.
He was the sheriff right before me, sent after the old sheriff, Shoal, retired. At four years older than me, he was the second youngest sheriff we ever had — second only to me. I told him about it ten weeks after he’d arrived, seven weeks after he’d asked to court me, six and a half weeks after I’d turned him down the customary three times, five weeks after he asked me to call him Percy, four weeks after he’d first kissed me, and one week before he would die.
“Well, don’t that just sound like nonsense!” he said, sitting beside me on my toolshed. “You ain’t no lily.”
I grinned. “Well, I reckon I’m a bit of a dandy,” I leveled, “Ain’t that the same thing?”
“’Course you a dandy,” Percy said, winking. “Else you wouldn’t be here with me. But lilies ain’t never had a use. Can’t eat ’em, can’t smoke ’em, can’t chew ’em. Lilies are just there to look mighty pretty.”
I punched his shoulder, laughing. “You saying I ain’t pretty?”
“Allium Umbel,” he said, rubbing his shoulder, “you are so much more than pretty. You’re as hardy as you are sweet.” He stopped rubbing his shoulder. One of his hands settled on my knee. “Why, I reckon you about the sweetest thing I ever did see,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
I blushed and looked down at my boots. “Reckon I feel about the same about you, Percy,” I mumbled to them.
“Well, sweet heavens and hallelujah!” he shouted. “You just made me feel like every falling star I ever did see landed right in my outstretched hand!” I chuckled as he flung his hat into the air. He pulled me close. I felt his fingers on the nape of my neck. “Allium Umbel, I dub you the Onion of the West,” he murmured, mighty gentle-like, “’cuz you’re as hardy and as sweet as an onion — and that is the Wry Whisky truth.”
III. That Side of the Window
“Gee, Mister Akimbo,” I say, placing a hand on my holster. “Did you think you was the first to come to Heaven’s Bounty lookin’ for some wishroot seeds?” His cheeks flushed. “You ain’t the first, and you certainly ain’t gonna be the last.”
“You bet I ain’t the last,” he snaps, “but you can bet I’m gonna be the last you ever see!”
“Sure thing, Mister Akimbo,” I say, all courteous-like, “but don’t you think that was what all the others said, too?”
His blush deepens. He spits a black tobacco stain again. “Maybe, son, but you ain’t never had nothin’ but wastrels and vagabonds after your wishroot ’fore this,” he says. “I been lootin’ podunk sheriffs a long time, and where are they now, boy?” He lifts his right foot slightly, and I know what he’ll do next. “Six feet under God’s green earth, ain’t they?” And as he says this, he kicks up a cloud of dirt toward me, draws his gun, and shoots. I lunge sideways behind a market stall just as his foot lifts. His gun fires long after I’m out of the way.
“Stop hidin’ like a dandy, boy!” he roars, and fires into the market stall. The cabbages and carrots on it explode above me. “Ain’t ya gonna fire back? Or are ya scared to face me?” His voice lowers as I hear him take a few steps toward the stall. “’Cuz I would be mighty scared, if I was you.”
“Cheatin’ scoundrel!” Old Sheriff Shoal shouts from his window, and Dirty Dog Akimbo wastes a bullet in his direction. Shoal ducks down and it strikes the windowsill. “Men like you ain’t got enough honor to fill a thimble!” he shouts from out of sight. Akimbo laughs, and I know why.
It’s always the townsfolk talking about honor. About a sheriff needing it, about how it’s all you got left when the fields are bare and the bottle’s dry. About how I was picked sheriff after Percy ’cuz that’s what I got — honor, and the keenest eye for a gunshot this side of the Mississippi. But when the fella you love is staring down some nameless bandit coming for this week’s wishroot harvest, there ain’t no honor. When the fella you love is lying on the ground with a bullet in his gut, and all that’s between you and that bandit is the gun in your hand, there’s just killing or being killed.
What Shoal’s really talking about is looks. What you look like when the townsfolk watch you from their houses, what you’re gonna look like when they tell the story of your last shootout. When you’re on that side of the window, it don’t matter that in a shootout, all you can think is surviving. When you’re on that side of the window, crying looks like cowardice, and desperation looks mighty coward-like. But honor never looks bad. Not honor. Never honor.
Honor sure looks mighty fine from that side of the window.
IV. As True as My Name
Folks say that, when the sands was young and the moon was just a sweet thing climbing outta her crib, a woman came walking these ways. She was full of wishing — wishing for a soft bed, wishing for a cold drink, wishing for her ma and pa now lost to the desert — and mind you, it ain’t no easy thing to carry all that wishing around. Wishing is a mighty hungry business. Aside from her wishing, though, she didn’t have nothing but the coat on her back, the bullets in her bandolier, her nag No Reins Riley and her own God-given name — Wry Whisky.
Now Wry Whisky had been traveling for many a day. Some say months, maybe years, but either way she was hungry enough to eat the moon and thirsty enough to wash it down with the Atlantic. She was just about ready to give up when outta the blowing sand and sun, she saw a green valley filled with constellations of purple flowers. Happier than a pig in mud, she and her nag stumbled forward and collapsed onto the dark earth. As Wry Whisky looked around, she realized the flowers were onion stalks.
“Well, I’ll be!” she cried to her nag, pulling a stalk up to reveal an onion bulb. Peeling away the tough skin, she took the first, sweet, sharp bite. She thought of her ma and pa. She thought of how she missed them. She thought of how she wished they were still with her. She wept.
Now, it ain’t nothing special to cry when you eat onion. But folks say that she cried so much and her tears were so full of wishing that all the onions of the valley drank it up. They drank up her wishes for a soft bed, and her wishes for a cold drink, and her wishes for her ma and pa lost to the desert. They drank up her tears and changed into something new and strange. They became the first wishroot on God’s green earth, and as they did, they began to glow like stars.
Now, it ain’t nothing special to cry when you eat wishroot, neither. Some say it tastes like the first time you ever been kissed. Some say it tastes like your mama hugging you when you was a little thing. Some say it tastes like every falling star you ever did see landing right in your outstretched hand, like honor from that side of the window and all you ever wanted. That’s why the bandits come — Folks pay a fortune to taste wishroot, and double that to get a hand on wishroot seeds.
“Ain’t this just like all of Heaven’s Bounty, laid out on a silver platter,” she laughed, “and ain’t that as true as my name.”
But Wry Whisky didn’t know nothing ’bout that. She didn’t know ’bout the house she’d build that would turn into a town, or ’bout the town folk naming it after her words, or ’bout the glowing onions that would one day be a something worth killing for called wishroot. What she did know was she was somewhere green and safe, in a valley of onions glowing like every falling star she ever did see.
He leaps forward just as I stand and knock the stall backwards. He steps out of the way before it falls on him, but it gashes open his right shoulder as it falls. He yells. I whirl around to shoot, but even with the wound he draws faster, and I leap behind Carpenter Betty’s wagon for cover.
“Clever, ain’t ya?” Akimbo grunts, and he ain’t playing now. “Well, you ain’t the only clever one here.” I hear his footsteps, then a huge grunt of effort as the wagon tips dangerously toward me. I leap back, and as it rocks away from me, I throw my weight against it. It teeters for a moment, and then I hear Akimbo cursing as it falls toward him. He leaps out of the way. The wagon topples over. Akimbo fires two more shots at me, and I roll sideways so we’re on opposite sides of the overturned wagon. It’s large enough to lend us both cover as we crouch.
We raise our heads over the wagon. We look quickly from one another to the surrounding debris and back again. The overturned wagon is the only cover on Main Street now. If either of us stands or runs, the other will have an easy shot. We size each other up. We reach the same conclusion.
“Think you can draw faster than me, boy?” he says, so quietly I can barely hear it.
“Sure dunno, mister,” I say with a little grin, “but we sure about to find out, ain’t we?”
A slow, sly grin spreads across his face, too. His gun quivers in his hand. My gun quivers in mine. For a heartbeat, our only movements are the trembling of our fingers. A drop of sweat dangles from my left brow and falls. Old Sheriff Shoals’ laundry sways in the wind. The townsfolk of Heaven’s Bounty watch breathlessly.
We stand. We draw.
VII. The Wry Whisky Truth
Truth is that at the end of the day, a heart full of wishing has two choices: Eat the world, or eat itself. Either you work yourself to the bone every day farming or shooting or robbing, or you drown in the hopes you had for a wedding with Ma crying and Pa’s rhubarb-wishroot surprise. Either you feast on the frost-kissed onions and the falling stars before you, or you feast on your own heart till you ain’t got a wish left in this world.
Truth is that all being hardy means is learning how to starve your heart. All it means is learning how to not eat the world and not eat your heart and live with that empty plate. All it means is trying not to wish until the day comes that you can’t not wish no more.
Truth is that all that wishing’s gotta go somewhere. If you’re a farmer, you put that wishing into next year’s crop and the color of the sky at 3 a.m. If you’re a sheriff, you put that wishing into a cowboy hat and a glinting badge on the chest of your jacket.
If you’re a wishroot seed, though, it ain’t the same thing. Maybe you’re planted, and all the wishing running through ya turns into a bulb, a stalk, a constellation of flowers. Maybe you die, and that wishing goes back to the earth for another wishroot to drink up. But maybe you’re not put into the ground, and mind you, wishing is a mighty hungry business, so all that wishing grows inside until it’s damn well ready to burst. Until it changes you from a seed into something that don’t know nothing but hunger. Until you could swallow up all of God’s green earth.
But you gotta be fed wishes, whispered to you every night before bed. You’ve gotta soak them up, so you know what wish to grant when the time is right. And you’ve gotta be kept from sprouting. Somewhere dark. Somewhere dry.
Like the inside of a gun barrel.
VIII. Planting Seeds
His gun goes off with a sharp bang. Smoke curls from the barrel. Sparks ignite the gunpowder. The bullet catches the sunlight. But I don’t have a bullet in my barrel. Inside of my gun, pulsing with purple light, are six tiny wishroot seeds.
The one I fire shines like a meteor as it flies, and in the space of a blink, it explodes. It becomes a mouth as wide and black as a moonless night. Dirty Dog Akimbo doesn’t even have time to scream as it opens wide, as it swallows first his speeding bullet, then Akimbo’s gun itself, before vanishing. It’s over in a moment — the gunfire, then the mouth, then me and my barrel pointing at Akimbo and the smoking space where his gun once was.
“Now you best get outta here, mister,” I say all quiet-like, “’Fore the same happens to you.” Akimbo sputters. He looks down at his hand. He looks up at me. He blinks in horror, then turns and runs down Main Street. I watch him get smaller and smaller as he disappears into the sands.
Then the townsfolk burst into applause, cheering and stamping their feet. They flood out onto Main Street, hugging one another and clapping me on the back. I grimace.
Later today, Old Sheriff Shoal will help me fix up Carpenter Betty’s wagon. If there’s still time, we might get started on making a new market stall, too. Funny thing is, when it’s all cleaned up, this town won’t remember. It’ll be just another time the Onion of the West outdrew a bandit. And they won’t think about it until another one comes after those seeds, hoping for a taste of everything they ever wished for.
It’s an ugly thing, I won’t deny it. And it sure leaves a mighty fine mess in its wake. But wishing’s a mighty hungry business, and sometimes, that’s what wishing looks like — a mouth so big it would swallow all of God’s green earth if it could.
That’s just the way it is — and that’s the Wry Whisky truth.
Daniel Wolfert is a composer and writer, avid reader, mediocre chef and terrible dancer based in Tacoma, Washington. He recently graduated from the University of Puget Sound with a degree in classical music, and has since been teaching voice and piano and working as a freelance composer in the South Sound area. When he was a child, he didn’t believe there was a number larger than 100 and to this day, he still has his suspicions.