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Announcing the Texas Observer Short Story Prize Winner

by Published on
photo by Matt Wright-Steel
Brian Allen Carr

The announcement of our first annual Short Story Prize began with a simple declaration: “We at the Texas Observer love a good story.” With only a handful of months from seed to sprout, never did we imagine that so many of you would, or even could, take those words to heart. What began in early February as a trickle of manuscripts became a torrent by late April, and we were thrilled to receive such an overwhelming amount of that which we love. As expected, the majority of our entries came from right here in Texas; for if there’s one thing a Texan loves more than hearing a good story, it’s spinning one of his or her own.

What we didn’t expect was representation from nearly every state in the Union. Not to mention Moscow. Tokyo. London. Hell, two of our five finalists don’t even live in the States, much less in Texas.

But as it turns out, four the five do have Texas ties. One is a writer/editor in Denton, one a PhD student in Lubbock. Another grew up in East Texas, attended UT-Austin, and now lives and writes in Scotland.

And our winner is a young writer in McAllen whose story, “The First Henley,” was chosen by our Guest Judge—the legendary Larry McMurtry—in part because it “sustains a good sense of atmosphere.” It’s the tale of an Old West gunfighter stripped of his capacity for holding a gun, a story which mixes fact and fiction and culminates at the first-ever Lone Star Fair in 1852 Corpus Christi. According to the author, it’s a “Cowboy Myth” tale “intended to poke fun at the Cowboy Myth.”

Whittling the number of finalists to five was among the most difficult editorial assignments I’ve ever taken on. Many dozens of entries show a great deal of promise, and more than a few of the honorable mentions are strong enough to have made the final cut in every other story competition I’ve been involved in. Both the quantity and quality of submissions far exceeded our expectations, and we thank each and every one of you for trusting us with your words.

Below are the names, locations, and story titles of the finalists and honorable mentions—not even 10% of what was an excellent crop of fiction.

Winner:
Brian Allen Carr, “The First Henley” (read the full story below)
Brian Allen Carr’s debut collection, Short Bus (Texas Review Press), was released in the spring of 2011. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Annalemma, Boulevard, Fiction International, Hobart, NANO Fiction and in several other publications. He serves as editor of Dark Sky Press and assistant editor of Boulevard.

Finalists:
Brad Green, “Repairing Miss Fritz”
Brad Green lives in North Texas with his wife and three children. He’s the assistant editor at PANK and an interviews editor at Dark Sky Magazine. More information about his writing can be found online at http://about.me/bradgreen

Landon Houle, “Big Hand Fred and His Kodak Ektralite”
Landon Houle is a doctoral student studying creative writing at Texas Tech University. She is an associate editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. Her fiction has appeared in descant and Confrontation, her nonfiction is forthcoming in Natural Bridge, and she has written book reviews for Callaloo and African American Review.

Michael McGuire, “He Will Sing to You”
A collection of Michael McGuire’s stories, The Ice Forest (Marlboro Press), was named one of “the best books of the year” by Publishers Weekly. His plays have been produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Mark Taper Forum, among others, and published by Broadway Play Publishing as Plays by Michael McGuire. One, La Frontera, set on the border, won the $10,000 International Prism Competition. He lives in Mexico.

Tasca Shadix, “Cumpleaños Féliz”
Tasca Shadix grew up in East Texas and attended UT-Austin, where she studied screenwriting and fiction at the Michener Center for Writers. She now lives in Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband and daughters, where she enjoys teaching Scots to play Texas 42 and writing secret, unpublished novels on the side. “Cumpleaños Féliz” is a chapter from one of those novels.

Honorable Mentions:
Tina Hollingsworth Bullitt (Wharton, TX): “Enchufismo”
Tom Dodge (Midlothian, TX): “Of Milk and Human Kindness”
Barbara Fillon (Brooklyn, NY): “Caroline”
Adam Gardner (Austin, TX): “Theft”
Wayne Lee Gay (Denton, TX): “Finding the Perfect Man at the Roundup Saloon”
David Giffey (Arena, WI): “The Street Vendor”
Yliana Gonzalez (Chicago, IL): “Porvenir”
Christine Granados (Victoria, TX): “Good Father”
Todd Greenwood (Wichita Falls, TX): “Remnant”
Landon Houle (Lubbock, TX): “On the Wings of the Great Speckled Bird”
Sherry Kafka (San Antonio, TX): “Pie and Coffee”
Holly Korbey (Dallas, TX): “If the Spirit Moves You”
Viqui Litman (Fort Worth, TX): “Cassie Leaves Babylon”
Robert Garner McBrearty (Louisville, CO): “Hello Be Thy Name”
Bryce Milligan (San Antonio, TX): “A Clean Kill”
Mónica Teresa Ortiz (Austin, TX): “A Curious Encounter”
Carolyn Osborn (Austin, TX): “Ghost Riders”
Mary O. Parker (Smithville, TX): “Pearl’s Red-Icing Fit”
Pedro Ponce (Canton, NY): “The Possession of Charles Ignatius De Leon”
Diane Toulmin (Fort Langley, B.C., Canada): “Reading to Men”
Bonnie West (Saint Paul, MN): “Bird Are Birds”
Wade Williams (Houston, TX): “Driving Across Texas With Larry and Other Stories”

 

Winning Short Story

The First Henley

by Brian Allen Carr

I know some details back and forth. The first Henley was crippled. His hands bungled by buckshot blast. Both palms remained, but he’d lost all but his right-index finger. It was his friend who’d done the shooting. The first Henley was a gunman. It was a fairly popular profession in his time. The crippling took place up northwest in a location I’m unfamiliar with. The main detail I know about the crippling is this: the first Henley looked to be losing a fight. He and the man he’d dueled with had run out of bullets, running back and forth, hiding behind barrels I imagine, shooting at each other—the smell of gunpowder aching the air wherever they might have been. Each man needed the other’s blood spilled. They went hand to hand once their ammunition was gone, maybe at the center of a dusty street, maybe in a thicket of mesquite trees—again the specifics were never made entirely clear to me—and they took to tussling. I don’t know if it was supposed to be all fists, or if there existed a code in that regard, but the other man drew a blade and mounted the first Henley. Henley was on his back with his hands to the face of the other man, and the knife came down, and Henley’s best friend, a gambler named Cousins, saw that the blade would slit the first Henley’s throat, and he reacted fast, firing a twelve gauge at Henley’s enemy. The shot erased the enemy’s face and brain, but it took most of Henley’s hands in the process—I suppose scattering them as muck in many directions. After that, Henley wasn’t a gunman anymore. He just wandered around with Cousins gambling.

Cousins owed many debts to the first Henley, and he took the well-being of his crippled friend seriously. He felt responsible for his physical state. The first Henley, from what I understand, was a lush after the injury. He’d drink often, and he wanted to die. He’d become angry with Cousins for letting him live. “Goddammit should’a let ’em cut me,” he’d say. But Cousins would never deal with that question head on. Instead he’d laugh and say, “Should’a moved your hands.” This back and forth took place often between the two, and, over the years, it became a humorous exchange. Shortly after the crippling it’d be a stiff lipped conversation they’d have—an early morning, whiskey-stained argument—but a few years later it turned into a gaff. The first Henley might spill some coffee, the mug just fumbling from his grip. It wouldn’t amount to nothing. He’d curse. “Goddammit, you should’a let ’em cut me.” And Cousins’ retort would come back smilingly, “Should’a moved your hands.”

As far as I understand, the first Henley had achieved notoriety based on the amount of fellows he’d killed using bullets, and some of the men he’d dropped were legendary. I don’t have the names. I don’t think the first Henley was big enough to have comics written about him, but he was known. This resulted in two things:

First, folks were always showing up to avenge. They’d had a brother or uncle or nephew or best friend murdered by a first Henley gunshot, and they wanted him to pay for the hurt the absence brought them. In the years following the crippling, there were always people showing up and calling the first Henley out. They wanted to take him into the street and duel. This usually brought about one of two results. Some of those coming for revenge would just deflate. Can you imagine? Stoking yourself into a nervous fervor in order to revenge a loss, only to find that the fight would be grossly unfair. The folks would just drop their heads puzzled as the first Henley held his tattered hands toward them—a nausea from non-climax clinging their skeletons. There’s something of a Stephen Crane story in that. A sort of “Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” But not all revenge seekers were well-tempered and generous. Some just saw the tattered hands as an advantage for them. Quite often they’d draw their guns, and Cousins would smoke them down. Instincts being instincts, the first Henley was alleged to wear his pistols even after the wounding. Supposedly he’d always reach for his side arms when drawn upon. His nubby hands mutely pawing the gun butts. But Cousins was a damned-good gunman in his own right, and he took care of all comers seeking to notch their guns with the first Henley’s name, making bodies into masses of gore that heaped heavy his mind, because it was said that Cousins began to grow wearisome of always dueling for the first Henley’s protection, that the amount of blood the first Henley brought to Cousins’ hands by way of those seeking retribution was beginning to trouble his soul. It might have even been that this duty would have obliterated their friendship, but after a while word spread of the first Henley’s handicap, and eventually the revenge seekers ceased to show their faces.

The other thing that would often happen, and this endured for a spell longer than the revenge seekers—women being far less inclined to know specific details of gunfighter’s lives—is that ladies would show up to proposition the first Henley. They did not show up to proposition him with sex. Well, maybe some of them showed to proposition him with sex, but more often than not what they wanted was for the first Henley to do their bidding. They had farms stolen, or husbands killed by evil men, and they had heard of the first Henley’s proficiency with firearms, specifically in regards to his murdering people with them, and they sought out his services as those in need. From the way it is told, the first Henley was fairly good at recognizing these women before they’d approach him, and, always appreciating the company of women, the first Henley would try to keep his hands hid for a stretch of time, pretending to contemplate the requests of the bereft, so as to keep them alongside him as long as possible. My grandmother says she sat beside the first Henley for over an hour before she saw his missing fingers.

This was in Corpus Christi. At the time of the first Lone Star Fair. It was a failure of an event. Supposedly 20,000 circulars went out for promotion and only a few thousand people attended. There are two known highlights of the fair. 1) It was the debut of Gail Borden, Jr.’s dried meat biscuit, a sort of precursor to his condensed milk, and 2) The southern bad girl Sally Scull shot and killed a man in front of dozens of witnesses at the tail end of the fair, the witnesses claiming, unanimously, that the killing was done in self defense. It is most likely the notoriety of Scull’s altercation that erased my grandmother’s story from the greater public’s memory. But she swears it’s all true, and most times I believe her.

She’d come to the fair to find a gunfighter. She was naive and young, and her brother died in what she deemed an unfair fight, and she knew a handful of gunfighter’s names from her brother’s stories, as he was enamored with the occupation, and, until the time of his death, an amateur gunfighter in himself. I imagine it was an occupation you were quick to realize either talent or failure in. She was in a saloon. A place with drinks and card playing. There, from what she understood, was where gunfighters would be. The way she tells it she had a sinking feeling before going into the saloon, because she was raised to believe that young ladies did not enter those types of establishments on principle. However, it seems to me that young ladies wouldn’t travel miles and miles to obtain the services of a well known killer. I don’t know all the names of all the gunfighters she knew. I have no idea who she might expect to find. I only know who she found—Murdoch Sebastian Henley.

The first Henley spotted my grandmother before she knew who he was. His name was said aloud, possibly by Cousins and possibly on command, and she came to their card table and asked if he was the Murdoch Sebastian Henley, which, of course, he was, and she took an empty seat beside him. The first Henley shook off the card dealer, motioned to Cousins with his head, and sat watching as Cousins was dealt another hand. “What can I do for you?” The first Henley had asked my grandmother, and, because they were in company, she was forced to lean into him and speak in whispers all about her brother and what she wanted done in turn, and my grandmother says the entire time Cousins and the card dealer would snicker at each other, but that she had no idea why. She did say, however, that the first Henley just eyed her wherever. That he had no qualms with being caught staring at her womanly features, and that she’d say things such as “excuse me” and try catching his gaze with her eyes, but she sat there for quite some time, spilling her heart, begging for assistance, breathing in his rot-gut breath, and being looked at all over. A group of gentlemen entered as my grandmother sat at the table, and they were well-dressed and well-groomed and they had something of the dark about them, and she kept looking over at them and wondering if there wasn’t a more competent gunfighter in the bunch. One that would take her money. One that would do what she needed done.

After an hour of lecherous gazing and no promises coming from the first Henley my grandmother decided that she was wasting her time at the card table, and she decided she’d get up and storm off. She tore into the first Henley before she left. Called him things young ladies didn’t say to people, again, I imagine, on account of principle, and berated him for wasting her time. Then the first Henley took his hands from beneath the table, showed my grandmother his marring, the shriveled fists flecked with scar, his one intact right index finger waving at her, and he said, “Sorry, ma’am, honest I didn’t mean no harm,” and he and Cousins and the card dealer truly burst into laughter then, and my grandmother was stricken a bit sick by his crippled state, and she had to lean against a barstool to steady herself and Cousins said, “Look, you’ve gone and made her sick,” and, of course the first Henley said, “Goddamit you should’a let ’em cut me,” and Cousins said, “You should’a moved your hands.”

It was at this moment that one of the new dark and fancy gentlemen stepped toward the card table, “Hey,” he yelled, and my grandmother, I’d imagine along with everyone else in the saloon, assumed he was about to protect her womanly honor. The first Henley even attempted to wave him off with a crippled hand and say, “We’ll ease up,” but the new man didn’t want anything to do with the first Henley as his audience. “You Cousins?” he asked.   

I can’t possibly know what beef this man had with Cousins. I don’t even want to assume. He hated Cousins, and he wanted him dead, and Cousin must have realized this as soon as he heard his name said, because he stood from the table and grabbed for a pistol, but he was too slow, and the new man put a bullet in his brain and heart before he’d even fully stood, and the first Henley just pawed instinctively at his own gun belt in vain as the new man walked toward him. “I know all about you too,” the new man said to the first Henley, and he grabbed for Henley’s right wrist, and pulled it toward him. He then took a Bowie knife from his gun belt and lopped off Henley’s final finger. A swift and single slice.

This was too much for my grandmother to bear. She lost consciousness when she saw the first Henley’s face clench into a shriek, and saw the gusher of blood trying to fill his fallen finger.

Later, my grandmother woke in a chair at the card table. She was sitting aside the first Henley who stared forlornly at a whiskey on the table. Cousins sat dead in the chair beyond him. The saloon was empty save the card dealer, the bartender and a few stragglers in dusty clothes.
“What time is it?” My grandmother asked. It was several hours after she’d lost consciousness. She wanted to know where everyone had gone.
I don’t know who Sally Scull shot, but she shot him just moments after the first Henley lost his finger, and the entire saloon had emptied to see the aftermath, as Scull was famous, and as it was rare for a woman to shoot a man, and they had taken their numbers to another saloon, following Scull, who wasn’t so much as even detained by the law, on account of her innocence being unquestionable.

The first Henley had explained it to my grandmother. His information was not firsthand. He had not moved since losing his final finger. My grandmother then realized that it was floating in the whiskey in front of him.

She felt terrible for him. He had once been famous. Even she’d known his name. He was one of her brother’s heros. She remembered the boy shooting tree trunks with the first Henley’s name painted on them. Not because he wanted the first Henley dead, but because he wanted to someday be his superior, because Henley was something he aspired to be. She couldn’t let one of her fallen-brother’s heroes stay that way. In a saloon in Corpus Christi watching his final finger float.

“Come with me,” she told him, and, of course, she took him home, and I guess things led to things.

In truth, I don’t remember much of the violent side of the first Henley. I saw him smack a wall with a nub once, but he was drunk, and there was piano music playing. And my father, Henley, Jr., he was a gentleman. Even the third, my older brother, he’s calm as they come. So, I’ll admit, sometimes my grandmother’s stories about my grandfather seem false to me. They seem something made up to impress. Something she’d tell me so I didn’t mind sitting beside him and letting him paw my head with his nubby hands. Something she told me so I wouldn’t lose respect for him whenever I was asked to tie his shoes.

Texas Observer books and fiction editor David Duhr runs WriteByNight, a writing center and writers’ ser- vice in Austin.