Bodie Bad Man

Margaret Chen

Margaret Chen

They were on the edge of a mountain, the car’s tires crunching slowly on the wrong side of the winding gravel road.

It’s safer here, the wife insisted, both hands sweating on the steering wheel. She could feel it, just a few feet away — the unguarded drop that fell thousands of feet onto large, jagged, body-breaking rocks. But there was also the dazzling mountain-view — a gorgeous, endless, deep-blue, summer morning sky and the handsome, granite faces of the Sierra Nevadas. She was missing it all, but she dared not look.

The husband said, I can drive. Do you want to pull over somewhere?

It’s okay, she said. Only a few more miles.

With thick patience, the husband did not remind his wife that it was her idea to drive up to this godforsaken town in the first place — this pile of rubble in the middle of nowhere. With no cell service or houses or people. Not even the sound of the wind or birds. Just silence, barrenness, the too-bright sunshine. He did not remind her. But she could feel it, and she could see it. The heavy disapproval and the weary, familiar lines etching themselves across his face.

In Bodie, the wife took pictures of lonely log cabins with tattered curtains in the windows, deserted stores and shuttered businesses, a bank with only two walls and a vault left standing. The husband kicked small rocks around in the dirt, and sat in whatever shade he could find. Together they watched a film about Bodie’s ten mines, the sixty-five saloons, the numerous red-light houses, the famines and snowstorms during which many of its residents had perished, the wild drinking and shootings that killed the others, and the Bad Man of Bodie, who might have been a real person named Tom Adams, or another man, named Washoe Pete. The Bad Man had shot a saloonkeeper for not serving his drink fast enough. He had murdered a Frenchman for cheating at a game of cards, and an Irishman for offending him one fine Sunday.

At the gift shop, the wife bought a mug with a picture of the Bad Man, skinny and handsome, wearing full cowboy regalia, and a mean mustache. While she was mulling over a display of fake gold coins by the door, her husband bought an antique knife.

The husband was in a good mood over his unexpected find, and so didn’t mind clowning around a bit with his wife before they left Bodie. After all, they would be on their way to Tahoe soon. He pretended to swipe at his wife a few times with the rusty knife. Then the clerk securely wrapped up the knife, and put it in a plastic bag.

Look, said the wife, pointing to a crumbling shack with a barred door near the store. That used to be the jail.

The husband-turned-clown swaggered into the shack and shut the door, making faces at his wife behind the bars. She smiled, took the camera out of her bag, and shot several photos. The husband rattled the bars.

On their way back down the mountain, the husband drove and together they admired the evening sky, red from the setting sun, and the magnificent mountain scenery. The mug and antique knife lay side by side on the back seat, wrapped in white tissue paper.


Margaret Chen currently lives in Ames, Iowa, where she is working towards a Certificate in Long and Short Fiction from UCLA Extension, and raising two children and three cats. Her work has appeared in The Shine Journal and Long Story Short and she received an Honorable Mention in the February 2010 Glimmer Train contest for New Writers.



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