Mystery Short Story: Saving Mrs. Hapwell

May 23, 2020 | 2020 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by John M. Floyd

This story was originally published in the March/April 1997 issue of the now-defunct Dogwood Tales Magazine.

“What I can’t figure out,” Nate said, as he lay in the dirt behind a clump of cactus near Rosie Hapwell’s house, “is why you married that idiot in the first place.”

Before Rosie could reply, another bullet whined off a rock three feet away. Both of them ducked their heads and crawled to the dry wash where Nate had left his

When they were safely out of sight she said, breathing hard, “I had to, that’s why.”

“You what?”

“How else was I gonna get out of Lizard Flats?” She pulled off one of her shoes, turned it over, and poured out a stream of sand and dirt. “You was in jail at the time, if I recall.”

Nate pondered that awhile, then said, “Well, I’m here now.”

Rosie’s face softened. “I know you are, honey. It’s a noble thing, too, after all these years, that you rode out here to see me in my exact hour of need, to save my life.”

“Well, I rode out here to see you, that’s true. Can’t say I knew your life was in danger, though.”

She scowled. “It weren’t, until about ten minutes ago. He just went crazy, is what he did.”

As if to emphasize that statement, two more shots rang out from the porch of the house thirty yards away. Nate’s horse, Blue, tied to a dead tree at the bottom of the wash, whinnied and pulled against his reins. After a moment Nate seemed to remember he had a gun of his own, and on an impulse he raised his head above the rim of the gully and took a potshot at the house. Just as he was aiming for a second shot, the gun jumped from his hand as if it were alive.

Nate slid back down beside Rosie, his eyes wide.

“Did you see what he did? That fool shot my gun right out of my hand!”

“A lucky shot,” she said, lacing her shoe up again. “Earl can’t hit the side of a barn.”

“He hit my gun, Rosie!”gun

“Nathan, he’s got glasses this thick. It was lucky, that’s all. He can’t see us down here, and he can’t hit us unless he comes closer.”

“I’m comin’ closer!” a deep voice shouted, from the direction of the house. “I intend to kill you, Rosie, and if that’s Nate Callahan I saw out there with you, I’ll kill him too.”

Nate and Rosie looked at each other a moment. The situation, it seemed, was about to get worse.

“Let’s get outa here,” he said.

“How do we do that?”

“On old Blue, that’s how. He’s standing right there.”horse

“Both of us?”

“Sure, both of us.”

“You told me in your letters he won’t let a woman ride him.”

Nate’s face fell. “That’s right. He won’t.”

“I’m comin’ to kill ya!” Earl Hapwell shouted.

“Well, we better do something,” Nate said.

Rosie thought a moment. “You go, Nathan. You done proved your love and your bravery. You ride off and save yourself.”

“I can’t do that,” he said. Then he brightened. “I know. I’ll send Blue off without us. Since Earl can’t see good, he’ll think we’re getting away. When he chases the horse, we’ll run off the other way.”

“Oh, honey,” Rosie purred. She was overcome with emotion. “You’d really stay here with me and die?”

“Maybe we won’t die. I told you, he might think we rode off.” Nate was untying his horse from the tree as he spoke.

“Yeah, and he might not, too. He might come right down here and shoot us.”

“Well, it’s our only chance.” Nate turned Blue loose and slapped him on the rump. He went charging off, and Nate and
Rosie huddled in the shadows to wait.

A minute passed. Nothing happened.

“Did he go after your horse?” Rosie asked.

Nate listened. “I don’t think so.”

“That means he’ll come kill us, then.”

“I expect so,” Nate said. He thought hard for several seconds. “How far does this gully go?”

“It plays out right around that corner,” she said, pointing, “and the other end curves back toward the house. The only way out is west, toward the flats, and if we do that he’ll see us. He can’t see good, but if he sees us at all he’ll chase us, and then we’re dead.”

For the first time, Nate looked really glum. “I think we’re dead anyway.”

They were both quiet a moment.

“You know,” Rosie said, “this is really romantic, you stayin’ here to die with me and all.”

Nate just went on looking glum.

“In fact, it’s crazy,” she said suddenly. “Listen to me, Nathan. You can still save yourself. There might be time for you to get your horse back here and ride off.”

“How would I do that, even if I wanted to?” he asked.

“Didn’t you write me once that Blue will come runnin’ when his owner whistles?”

“That was his other owner. Not me.”

“He won’t come when you whistle?”

“I can’t whistle.”

Rosie nodded sadly. “Me neither. Never learned how.”

They fell silent again. Just as they were beginning to think Earl Hapwell might have forgotten all about them, he appeared at the edge of the wash, ten feet away. He had his rifle, and he looked mad.

“Gotcha,” he said. “You two better say yore prayers.”

“Wait a minute, Earl,” Nate said, standing up with both hands in the air. “What do you want to kill us for?”

Earl gave that some thought, then admitted, “I don’t really want to kill you, Nate. If you can find yore horse, you can go on and leave. It’s her I’m set on killin’.”horse

“But why, Earl?”

His face darkened. “Cause she did an unforgivable thing, that’s why.”

That stopped Nate for a second or two. He had never heard Earl say a five-syllable word before. In fact, Nate didn’t think he’d ever heard anyone say a five-syllable word. He got the meaning, though.

“What’d she do that was so bad?” he asked.

Earl frowned a moment, as if reliving the horrible deed, then said, “I told you to get yore horse and leave, Nate. I meant it.”

“Not till you tell me what she did that’s so bad you want to shoot her. If it’s bad enough, I’ll leave.”

“You swear?” Earl asked him.

“I swear.”

Earl hesitated, then said, “She turned off my football game.”football

Nate blinked. “She what?”

“She turned off my ballgame. Then she throwed away the knob.”

It was suddenly very quiet in the gully.

“Was it halftime?” Nate asked.

“Nope. Fourth quarter.”

“Was it a one-sided game?”

“Ten to nine,” Earl said.

Another silence. Earl stared at his wife and his wife stared at Nate and Nate stared at the ground in front of him, deep in thought.

Finally he looked up at Earl.

“Can you whistle?” Nate asked.

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John M. Floyd’s short fiction has appeared in all the major mystery magazines, The Saturday Evening Post, and the 2015, 2018, and (upcoming) 2020 editions of The Best American Mystery Stories. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is also an Edgar nominee, a three-time Derringer Award winner, and the author of eight books. Visit him at


  1. Loved this. Especially being a 74 year old female football fan. Thanks for a great read and a good laugh.

    • Kathy — Thanks so much! Glad you liked it.

    • Kathy — Thanks so much! Glad you liked it.


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