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Day of Atonement


Kevin Gonzalez


            Martin Gardner squandered his last few moments of freedom by gulping down tepid, bitter coffee to wash away the taste of stale corn tortillas that had made up his hasty breakfast while on the run from the law. Baring yellowed teeth in a grimace, he wiped his stubbled chin and mouth with a greasy sleeve, and then spat.

            Just before the coffee-stained saliva hit the ground, he heard the click-clack of a rifle’s bolt ramming a cartridge home. He slid his hand around the grips of his Remington .44-40 just as he heard the warning: “Pull that gun and your breakfast will be spilling out of your brisket.”

            Gardner spread his fingers wide and raised his hands high in response to the challenge. Turning his head with the slowness of a minute hand on an Elgin, he glimpsed the barrel of a Krag carbine pointed at his midsection.

            The Army gun was in the capable hands of Eli Weiss, Arizona Ranger. Gunmetal gray eyes dominated a lean face with jutting cheeks and a hawk-like nose that desert winds had eroded with faint wrinkles. Of medium height and showing that he had inherited his blacksmith father’s wide shoulders and deep chest, he cast a stocky shadow. His weathered, tan outfit of shirt, vest and canvas trousers was the color of sand, perfect camouflage for a desert man-hunter. Even his battered straw sombrero matched his surroundings. Completing his outfit was a long-barreled Colt .45, worn crossdraw to afford either hand a quick grasp.

            The ranger spat his words like bullets. “Smart move, Gardner. Smarter than that bank job you pulled in Tucson. I know the owners of that bank, the Jacobs brothers Lionel and Barron. You’re lucky that Lionel didn’t catch you. He’s pure hell with his fists. Me, I like to let this Krag .30-40 do my fighting. Lead hits much harder than flesh and bone.

             His voice gentled a bit as he continued. “Besides, this is a special time for the brothers. High Holy days are upon us. Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, just passed. We’re headed for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. So they decided to let me do it instead.”

            So here I am stuck on duty, thought the ranger, a Jew himself. He had wanted to observe Yom Kippur with his old friend Solomon Pliskin in the tiny town of Panacea. Might yet make it, he thought. Gardner would become the temporary guest of town marshal Verdell Hubbard’s jail while Weiss too the opportunity to practice his religion with other Jews. It had been a chance meeting with Pliskin during Passover some years ago that had reawakened his sense of religion and he had kept it going ever since, a tough thing to do on the trail on the lookout for bandits and bullets. 

            Still, if he pushed things a bit, he might just make it to Panacea in time for the somber time in the Jewish calendar where Jews ask God for forgiveness for their transgressions of the year past and to be written well of in the Book of Life. Panacea had its minyan at long last, the 10 men of faith necessary to hold services. Pliskin, a merchant nicknamed Secondhand Sol, was chosen as lay rabbi to lead the services, which was a signal honor.

            Odd how so many look up to such a small man, thought Weiss. Including me.

            He noticed the outlaw staring at the carved mesquite grips of his Colt. “Looks like you put one too many points on that star,” said Gardner. “You rangers wear a five-pointed one, not six-pointed.”

            “Whittled on these stocks whiling away the time during the more lonesome parts of the trail, Gardner,” replied Weiss as he disarmed the outlaw and manacled his wrists. “And I counted just right. The six-pointed star is the Mogen David, the sign of my faith as a Jew. It reminds me of the higher authority that I serve.”

             “You don’t have to tell me anything about the High Holidays or that Mogen David,” snorted the outlaw. “You’re looking at the former Mordecai Baumgartner. Yup, a lantzman, just like you.”

            “If you were just like me, Jew or not, you’d help keep the law, not break it,” retorted the ranger.

            “I had my bellyful of law,” Gardner snapped back. “Didn’t help much when they ran my old man out of town for being different. Didn’t like him setting up shop on Sundays when the other merchants were closed. Didn’t like his accent or his faith.

            “So when I could, I left the family, changed my name and dropped my faith. Tried to make an honest living but something always got in the way and I ended up looking for the easy way out. Maybe things would be different if I had gotten a better deal from those law-abiding Christian folks.”

            “Nice speech,” answered Weiss. “Now mount up and move. We’ve got a ways to travel. We’re headed toward Panacea and Jewish services. You’ll get lodgings in the jail.”


            They pushed hard. Lunch was gnawing leathery jerky and washing it down with warm water from their canteens while the horses rested. But even Weiss had to admit they needed to stop for the evening before the final leg of their trip to Panacea.

            He unpacked special hardware for the camp site – a sawed-off, single barrel shotgun chopped down for close-quarters work. “Fellow ranger told me he uses one when bringing in prisoners,” he explained to Gardner. “Says it’s handier than toting a rifle or trying to draw a revolver from an awkward position. And one load of buckshot should be all you need at arm’s length distance.” A leather loop from its abbreviated butt stock wrapped around his wrist kept it at the ready at all times.

            Reaching into his saddle bags, he tossed a flat tin to Gardner. “Here’s supper. That little key on top takes off the lid.”

            “Sardines! I was hoping for bacon and beans at least,” complained the prisoner, glaring at the tin.

            “Sardines pack away light and flat. Good for the trail. Bacon? I gave that up when I began taking my religion seriously again.”

            “Got anything else?” asked Gardner. He soon snatched at a baked brick of bread thrown his way. “Hard tack?”

            “If it’ll help, think of it as matzah,” said the ranger, taking about the unleavened flat bread eaten during Passover. “Or were you wishing for some challah?” asked Weiss, referring to the braided bread of the holidays.

            “And some wine, too,” laughed Gardner. “We can say the motzi before we break bread.” He paused, and then reaching back into his memory, dusted off and said the traditional prayer before dining: ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.’” He shook his head. “Damn, haven’t thought of that in years.”

             “Looks like you haven’t thought of a lot of good things to do in years,” observed the ranger, downing some of the little fish.

            “I guess I always thought of being as Jew as a troublesome inconvenience.”

            “Me, too,” agreed the ranger. “It was just a label on me that drew the type of attention I didn’t need, mostly in the form of trouble. I didn’t mind the fights all that much usually. Only when I lost, which wasn’t all that frequent. Guess I was training to be a ranger and didn’t know it at the time.”

            “Me, too. I took to keeping it to myself. Even changed my name thinking it would change my luck. Huh – didn’t work.”

            “Takes more than changing a name to make a man different. You have to change your attitude.”

            “Maybe I could, given another chance.” He looked up at the ranger. “Let’s talk man-to-man, one Jew to another. You got me thinking, ranger, about the special meaning of this time of year. Maybe I could atone, make up my mind to do good from now on. Or at least, stop doing bad. When it comes time to be writ down in the Book of Life, maybe I could get some good words in there about me. Maybe even get some of the bad ones erased. What do you think?

            “Well here’s what I’m thinking,” he continued. “You let me go. Keep the bank money and return it. That’s fair, right? That’s all the bank really wants. Tell folks you found it, but not me. Or that I escaped somehow. Just give me back my horse. All I need is my freedom and my self-respect. I’d be rich enough then. OK?” he pleaded.

            Weiss shook his head. “I could put in a good word to the judge on your behalf,” promised the ranger. “Best that I can do. And when you get out of Yuma Territorial Prison, you could start your new life, after paying your debt to society. Might even consider being observant with your family’s beliefs again.”

            Gardner turned silent as a stone and ate the rest of his meal without further comment. He tossed the empty tin in the fire, watching while it smoked as the oil caught fire. “Guess I’ll be turning in.”  He lay back and then rolled over in his blankets. `

            Weiss stood guard, staring at the outlaw’s supine form. Sleep impossible, he spent most of the night awake, thinking and whittling at a piece of firewood with his Barlow knife. Every now and then, he considered the small, smooth piece of wood taking shape under the sharp steel.

            Hours later, brushing the soot from the fire off his fingers, Weiss bent and put down the tin cup of coffee he had just poured, setting it aside to cool. Glancing at the outlaw, he took the leather loop from his wrist and laid the shotgun alongside his saddle. He walked a bit away from the camp to relieve himself behind a bush.

            He came back to be greeted by the unblinking one-eyed stare of the shotgun lined up on his chest.

            “We always seem to be meeting in the morning at gunpoint, don’t we, ranger?” said a grinning Gardner. “Only this time, I do believe I have the advantage. Even had enough time to break the gun open and check for any tricks. We both know this gun ain’t empty and that there’s a real shell in the chamber. Buckshot, right?”

            “That’s right,” acknowledged the ranger. “Listen, you don’t have to do anything rash. What you said last night? Leave me the money so I can return it to the bank. Take your horse and skedaddle, OK? And use this chance to change your life for good. Just put down the gun first.”

            Gardner waggled the shotgun. “I’m not saying I wasn’t telling you the truth last night when I said what I would do if you set me free. But this morning, things are a whole lot different, you know? I got me a gun and I got more choices. And you have a whole lot less.”

            “Then take the shotgun when you leave. You can down rabbits or birds for the pot if you get close enough,” said the ranger.

            “Or use it to persuade folks to give me some of their money and then buy my supplies.”

            The ranger frowned. “You said you’d give all that up. OK, maybe you had it rough growing up, but so did lots of other Jews and they still tried to make a go of it, legal and law-abiding. But you broke the law more than once. I can’t turn my back on that and still wear a badge. I can’t saddle up and ride away, know you did what you did and not do nothing about it. If I turned you loose and you harmed folks, I’d be coming back for you with a vengeance.”

            “Too bad, Eli. That’s just too damn bad.”

            “Pull that trigger and you destroy your chances at a new life,” warned the lawman. “Just give me the gun.” He held his hand out and took a step closer.

            “You won’t be doing nothing, but because you’ll be dead. Shalom, ranger,” said the outlaw, pulling the trigger.

            The roar of the shotgun, so close, was the loudest sound that Weiss had ever heard.


            “What?” said a surprised Solomon Pliskin a day later as he finished listening to Eli tell his tale. “A bandit armed with a sawed-off shotgun tries to shoot you and you are still here to talk about it? He misses you when he is so close?”

            Weiss looked down at the floor, shaking his head. “It wasn’t a question of missing. During the night while he slept, I carved a wooden plug that I jammed down the bore of the shotgun. I blackened the end of it with soot so it wouldn’t show. So when he fired the gun at me …”

            “It explodes.”

            “”Bout near tore off his left hand at the wrist and put steel slivers everywhere. He bled out fast.”

            Pliskin was silent for a while. “That’s what you mean when you tell him, ‘Pull that trigger and you destroy your chances.’ Only he did not understand the true meaning.”

            Weiss nodded. “He had a choice to make. And he made a bad one.”

            “What you did was create for him a Garden of Eden in his mind – his freedom. But you also put temptation in it,” said Pliskin.

            “Not an apple, but a shotgun,” agreed the ranger.

            “If he leaves it alone, he goes to jail with a chance to reform, even to redeem himself. But if he picks it up …”

            “Which he did …”

            “Gardner, it seems to me that he also created a temptation for you – letting a fellow Jew go to make good on his promise to change for the better. And you both lost. He loses his life, but you lost a little more faith in mankind.”

            “I can get over my loss. He can’t.”

            After a pause, the ranger added, “So on this, the most holy day of our calendar, it looks like I have added a lot to what I have to atone for.” He took off his sombrero and put on his homemade buckskin yarmulke, the traditional covering for his head during services. Straightening up from his chair, he unbuckled his gun belt.

            Pliskin nodded in agreement and together they left for the social hall that Panacea’s Jews rented for their services.

“Today is a day of praying, fasting and begging God for forgiveness. If only we could have been joined by Gard … I mean Mordecai Baumgartner,” said Pliskin.

            Amein,” agreed the ranger. “Amein.”







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