The Blacksmith of Vulcan
By Mel Goldberg
George Fierro watched a tumbleweed roll across dusty Main Street, wiped his forehead with a bandanna, and walked across. At nine o’clock in the morning he could taste the rising heat. He questioned why he ever came to the town of Vulcan in the Arizona desert a few miles from the Mexican border. Six months earlier, he had been a blacksmith at a riding stable in upstate New York. When that closed and he had been unable to find work, he had come in answer to mayor Rosita Gonzalez’s ad. People here still rode horses and needed his services.
He pushed through the swinging doors of Rosita’s Place, Vulcan’s casino, designed to look like an old western saloon, and walked to the bar.
A military camp a few miles away brought soldiers to the town to gamble and visit the upstairs rooms occupied by women who were paid by the hour for service.
The clanking of the slot machines vied with the canned music that every couple of minutes slowed to a whine as if it were about to die before it surged back to life.
Texas Willie, a professional gambler, came here every Friday to beat the soldiers out of their weekly pay. He had a way with cards and two of the soldiers at his table were nearly out of money.
“Hello, Sheriff,” Miss Rosita called from behind the bar.
George grimaced. “I wish you wouldn’t call me sheriff.”
“Why not? It’s Friday and the annual Sheriff’s Day.”
“It may be Sheriff’s Day, but I’m really just the town blacksmith.”
Miss Rosita handed him a beer. “True. I run this casino but I’m also the mayor. So you’re a blacksmith and also the sheriff. It’s in the lease you signed for the forge. On the back. In small print.”
“You’re still new here, Sheriff.” She emphasized the title. “For many years this town has been in thrall to some stranger.”
“A big investor from Wall Street?”
“Well, he could be, that’s for sure. He calls himself Mr. Ankow. Every Sheriff’s Day he comes to collect his due.”
“His due? What does he collect?”
“Souls. They say he’s been coming here for well over a hundred years.”
“Over a hundred years? What do you mean by souls?”
“Have you noticed the people who seem to look lost and walk around staring vacantly into space?”
“Yeah. What’s with them?”
“He took their souls.
“What the hell is he? Some kind of evil spirit? A monster?”
“That’s what the last sheriff said before he died. Mr. Ankow didn’t like it.”
“How many souls does this Ankow get?”
“We never know from year to year. Sometimes one or two. Sometimes five.” She pointed to the prostitutes and gamblers. “They think they’re immune.”
Miss Rosita folded her arms across her ample bosom. “Anyway, today he’s coming to collect. And as the sheriff, it’s your job to make a list of prospects.”
“But I’m really a blacksmith.”
“Right. Anyway, you best be ready. I’m afraid he’ll expect you to have the list prepared. It’s eleven. Mr. Ankow will be here at noon.”
“What if I refuse?”
“Good luck with that, Sheriff.”
“What did the last sheriff do?”
“Refused. Met him on Main Street at high noon and engaged Mr. Ankow in a gunfight and shot him to no effect. He expects you’ll probably do the same.”
“Wait! Gunfight? This is the twenty-first century. I don’t even own a gun!”
“We put the last sheriff’s gun in the office after his funeral.”
George went home, did some Internet research, and then went to his forge. People walking by heard the blowers and the hammering. An hour later, he went to the sheriff’s office. In a drawer he found the sheriff’s badge, a gun belt, and the Colt .45. He strapped the belt on, holstered the pistol, pinned the badge to his shirt, and stepped out onto Main Street.
A crowd had gathered along both sides of the street. And George Fierro saw Mr. Ankow walking toward him, his face dark under a wide-brim black Stetson. He wore a black knee-length jacket over a waistcoat that had not been in fashion for a hundred years. And he cast no shadow.
Mr. Ankow asked, “You the new sheriff?”
“Doesn’t matter. You have my list ready?”
“No list this year.”
“Are you calling me out, Sheriff?”
The crowd gasped.
“I believe I am. I’m calling you a monster.”
The crowd gasped louder.
“That’s what the last sheriff called me. Are you of the same mind?”
“You know what happened to him.”
“I do. I heard you been coming to collect souls for over a hundred years. Not this year.”
“Them’s fighting words. I want my souls!”
George thought he was going to die as Mr. Ankow pushed back his jacket to reveal a gleaming pistol with black onyx grips.
George pulled his Colt as fast as he could but Mr. Ankow was so fast no one actually saw him pull his pistol. It just appeared in his hand. He looked at the crowd and smiled.
George got off one shot and it hit the Mr. Ankow square in the chest.
Mr. Ankow took a step back, a shocked look on his gaunt face. He grabbed his chest and fell to his knees. “Who . . . are . . . you?”
“A blacksmith.” George walked toward him and snapped the cylinder open to knock its contents into his hand.
George held out his hand so Mr. Ankow could see the bullets. “I didn’t use store-bought bullets like the last sheriff. I’m a very good blacksmith who can forge .45-caliber bullets out of a silver ingot.”
The body of Mr. Ankow shriveled and turned to a pile of dust. George wiped his forehead with his bandanna and realized he liked it here in Vulcan, a town with an appropriate name for a blacksmith/sheriff.