“What’ll it be, stranger?” Henry facetiously asked José sitting across the diner counter.

Leaning forward in his stool, the middle-aged Tejano offered a subtle grin.

They had about 15 minutes before the shooting started. Not enough time to have some of Miss Ruth’s hash brown omelet, but plenty of time to get a decent pot of her percolator-style black coffee in their bellies before all hell broke loose. If they were going to go down, might as well have one last swig of the good stuff he had tossed down his throat each morning for 30 years.

José looked over Bill sitting on the stool beside him, his trembling fingers dangling near his revolver. He could read the young man’s mind well, as he had his father, Dale.

“Coffee, por favor,” José said as he took out a can of chew and stuck a pinch of it between his gums.

“Just coffee?” Henry asked with a deep wheeze. His body was a mishmash of disconnected eras. His steel-blue eyes blazed with the same youthful vitality and exuberance as his baritone voice, but the rest of him, from his leathered face to his bent back, was as decrepit as the diner itself, and only half as old.

“Yeah,” José said. “Make it a bit stronger, if you please.”

“Sure thing,” Henry said as he sauntered over to the coffeepot, snatching a small bottle off the shelf.

Bill kept glancing over his shoulder at the front entrance to the diner, his fingertips stroking the revolver’s trigger guard.

“They ain’t coming yet,” José said. “I figured they’ll want to gather up the rest of ‘em before they come for us.”

Bill nodded, clasping his hands together as though in prayer. He then eyed the handful of other patrons in the diner. It was a large Hispanic family composed mainly of little kids. They were self-segregated in a specific corner that had been unofficially designated by non-Anglos as their preferred space. They regarded Henry with polite but reserved smiles as he approached them to take their orders, but avoided eye contact with the two men at the counter.

“Word must have gotten around fast,” Bill said.

“They don’t know ‘bout it,” José replied. “Things here have been tense for a while.”

“Shouldn’t we warn them?”

“They’ll find out. Trust me.”

Heaving under his breath, Bill took his cup of coffee from Henry’s blemished hands and sipped on it furiously. José chuckled as he smelled the deep aroma of freshly ground coarse black beans and moonshine. He spat out the chew into a bottle and put it aside as he quietly drank his coffee.

Miss Ruth appeared in the kitchen doorway, brushing aside her long white hair tied into a ponytail as she called teasingly out to José. “The boss says you don’t want my hash brown omelet.”

“No, ma’am.”

“You boys not working hard enough out in those fields to also work up an appetite?”

José lowered his facetious grin for a moment to give her a glimpse of what troubled them. She put her hand to her mouth as he looked over at Henry. “What are we going to do, Papa?”

“Nothing. Let the boys figure it out. You and I just sit tight.”

Wiping a tear from her eye with her apron, she waved gently toward the two men before entering the kitchen.

“We can leave if you want,” José said to Henry. “This ain’t your bronco to tame.”

The elderly man guffawed until a coughing fit silenced him. “What difference does it make? much longer do think this old place will last?”

José said nothing. No joke or humorous quip could lessen the pain he sensed in Henry’s voice. The deep musky aroma that permeated the ancient wooden beams above them and the floors beneath their feet that creaked with each step was like the stench of a rotting corpse. It inspired a distinct nose wrinkle that gave away newcomers not yet accustomed to the smell.

The diner was as fragile as Henry’s gait, but a dwindling clientele meant he could barely afford to keep their own house respectable, though there was hardly an Anglo left in the town who would care. The dark complexion of those eating in the corner reflected the new face of Millwood Creek seen behind the counters at the grocery store, the food truck, the gas station, and in the apple orchards. Henry’s diner was the last place left for Anglos to congregate while the immigrant community typically kept to themselves, creating a situation devoid of open conflict but nevertheless maintaining a noticeable sense of uneasy coexistence.

Having lived there his entire life working on Bill’s family apple orchard, José had watched the town’s transformation unfold while noting how little things for him had changed. Bill’s family and the other Anglos had befriended him, but also never fully regarded him as one of them. However, as a Tejano he was considered by the Hispanic immigrants “Americanized,” a veritable gringo who belonged with the Anglo community and was tied to their collective future.

“What’s the plan?” Bill asked.

“Pretty simple: we want until they show up and then shoot them if they start something.”


“Okay, they’ll start something and then we shoot them.” José gently nudged the shotgun sitting upright underneath the counter next to his stool, already fully loaded with lead slugs. Underneath Bill’s stool was a discreetly placed .30-30 Winchester.

Bill nodded as he rubbed his hands together nervously. Even the moonshine-steeped coffee couldn’t soothe the desperate anxiety plaguing him. José had seen it before, knew what ailed him. Fear wasn’t the worst thing a man could suffer. Everyone was afraid. It was the uncertainty of whether he was doing what he should that would eat at a man.

“You can still get out if you want, amigo,” he told Bill. “You can wait for the cops.”

“Heh. They’re not coming, at least not until we’re all dead. Besides, this bastard and his buddies won’t just stop with you. We’re both stuck with this.”

That thought didn’t sit well with José. He couldn’t quit, though; the whole damn thing was his fault.

Well, not really. It was the damn “whiner” who started it all.

Ever since José had taken overseeing the apple orchard for Dale, it had been the same routine during the harvest. The same migrant pickers making their way from California would arrive, and José would drive up and down the row of apple trees ensuring things got done on time and settle any disputes. For years, there had been no problems. The pickers had been el sabios, a tight-knit group of older men who required little direction.

But the new breed of pickers was composed of men barely able to shave, young pendejos who were inexperienced, entitled, and arrogant. And they came at the worst time: just before Dale had passed away and left Bill to take over when he was only 26 years old. José had tried to let him handle it on his own, but the boy hadn’t been prepared for the gang-like negotiations that became a permanent aspect of the harvest.

It all came down to the “whiner,” the culero of the group who would rifle up the others whenever they discussed wages at the beginning of the picking season. If the whiner didn’t agree with proposed wage rate, or gang members he brought with him didn’t get hired, he’d refuse to work, and the rest of the men would side with him.

And once that happened, there was little Bill could do. The first time he tried to defy the whiner, he had been ambushed while driving his tractor through orchard and thoroughly beaten. A brief chat with the county sheriff’s office afterwards made it clear where they stood: too far away and too resigned to get involved either way.

From then on, José knew well to mark the whiner among the pickers each year and target him as soon as he showed signs of trouble. He also carried his Mini-14 ranch rifle with him whenever he ventured into the fields.

Then, he had known in his gut that some whiners would respond by carrying their own weapons and eventually things were going to come to a head.

But he been totally unprepared for that moment when he found himself facing down that year’s whiner. Only after retreating to the diner had he been able to process how quickly things had escalated.

All he had done was tell the son of a bitch to pick a damn row of trees one of his buddies had missed. The whiner argued with him, having previously shown his disgust at having to take orders from a Tejano.

José had hopped off his vehicle to confront the man, only to see him reach for behind his back underneath his long work shirt.

Frantically, José had snatched his rifle and given the fool one final command to back down. Ignoring the order, he had gone for a concealed handgun and started shooting. José may have wounded him, but he couldn’t tell for sure before the man hid among the hundreds of trees.

Unable to find him, José had rushed back to Bill’s house and dragged him out after hastily collecting a few guns and ammo. The whiner was the member of a gang that included at least four other pickers. The whiner would persuade some of the other pickers to join them.

“Could I get a refill?” José asked Henry, holding his coffee mug up.

“Sure thing. It’s ‘bout the last of this pot.”

“Wouldn’t want to miss a drop.”

He drank the rest, trying to think of ways to reassure Bill. The boy was truly between a rock and a hard place. It wasn’t entirely of José’s doing.

Over in the corner, the Mexican family paid for their meal and quickly left with boxes full of leftovers. Word somehow got around fast, and it wasn’t their fight.

“Are you scared?” Bill asked José.

“I’ve always loved fighting,” he laughed. “Guess that’s why I never got out of this town, but there are worse ways to go. Beats dying of cancer, that’s for sure.”

Bill laughed nervously. “I’m scared, but not of getting shot. I’m scared of losing the orchard. My great-grandpappy started it. Everybody else kept it going until now.”

“Ain’t your fault, kid.”

It was the truth. Dale hadn’t planned too far into the future. When demand in the apple market shifted away from their variety, he hadn’t invested in planting trees that paid better. Even without the whiners and the new pickers causing a fuss, Bill could hardly keep things afloat much longer on the small profit he got. In some ways, his future seemed as bleak as Henry’s and that of the town.

Taking a roll of money from his jacket, José offered it to Bill. “It’s enough to get you the hell outta here and start somewhere else. You don’t have to die with all this.”

Bill glanced at the dollar bills and pushed them away. “I’m scared, but I don’t like running away. My dad would call me a coward if he saw it.”

“Being smart isn’t cowardly.”

“I don’t want to run away. This is my home…but it’s not home anymore, is it?”

“We’ll find out.”

The door creaked as a person walked inside. Studying the glass reflection on the wall on the other side of the counter behind Henry, he saw a large Hispanic man holding himself unsurely. He sniffed loudly as he rolled his shoulders.

“What it’ll be, stranger?” Henry asked carefully.

The man was quiet. Then he spoke. It was clear who he was addressing.

“Ya wanna come outside, amigo?”

Out the corner of his eye, José silently ordered Bill to keep still. Enjoying the last drop of coffee from his mug, José held the ceramic cup with an outward arm as he turned to face the man.

“Nope,” he said. “I’m enjoying the best damn coffee in the world. Wouldn’t miss it for a thing.”

The Hispanic man seemed confused as he spoke again with a heavy accent. “I think you should come outside. We need to talk about something.”

When José said nothing, the man then pointed at Bill. “Boss, we need to talk outside.”

“He’s not going anywhere,” José replied firmly. “And if you got something to say, say it to me.”

“He’s the boss.”

“You’re here ‘cause of me, not him.”

Maintaining his unsurely stance, the man looked outside before gesturing threateningly at José. “It doesn’t have to be this way, Tejano. We can do this like hombres. You’re gonna come with us.”

“Then come and take us.”

He had hardly finished speaking before the man went for something behind his back. But José already had his .40 caliber pistol drawn from its holster and fired from the mid-chest. The bullet struck the man in the lower chest. He dropped like a fell tree.

José instantly grabbed Bill and dove to the floor as a barrage of pistol gunfire shattered the large glass windows overlooking the rest of the town. Retrieving his shotgun, José kicked the rifle over toward Bill and crawled away from the counter. Seeing a spare cloth, he took it and used it to shove aside the glass shards fallen on the floor and create a path to one of the booths. Based on the number of shots, there were around six of them split up into two groups. One was firing from the right side, while the other fired from the center facing the town’s main street.

“Wait until they stop,” José yelled above the noise to Bill. Remarkably, the boy seemed calm now that the fighting had finally started.

A moment later, the shooting tapered down, and voices picked up. Listening intently to judge their location, José got up and took a knee as he aimed his shotgun at a figure near a low-riding pickup truck in the diner parking lot. The slug shot tore away the front right section of the hood and sent sharp pieces of metal into the man’s chest. Mortally wounded, he screamed curses in Spanish as he clutched his side. His friends watched in horror, but none dared go near him.

Over to the right, Bill remained behind the booth as he fired at the second group of men concealed by a retaining wall. The ranch rifle was powerful enough to pierce the brick blocks, but slugs kicked up dust, offering an ideal screen for the men to move to a better spot beyond his visibility.

“What about the back?” Bill asked. “Can they get in through the back entrance in the kitchen?”

“Henry sealed it,” José replied. “Their shitty nine millimeters ain’t cutting through that.”

Further to the right, a brick smashed one of the remaining windows. As it did, an unknown shot grazed Bill’s shoulder. He stumbled, pausing just long enough for another bullet to strike him in the upper shoulder. He fell backwards and dropped his rifle as he pressed his hand against the bloodied spot on his shirt.

Sensing the danger of their situation, José left Bill where he was to keep a steady stream of fire on the gang. In an act of idiotic bravado, one of the pickers leaped through the open window frame to shoot José at point blank range. He was thrown back by the enormous force of a slug and flipped over the window frame.

Finding the shotgun empty, José went for Bill’s rifle and reloaded it, firing wildly as he checked on his young companion. Bill looked bad, but there was nothing he could do about it. A second of distraction could get them both killed.

Suddenly, Miss Ruth came out of the kitchen and knelt beside Bill. A small medical kit in hand, she began treating his wound.

“Are you loco?” José asked.

“I’m not letting these varmints push me around in my place,” she replied defiantly.

It was a distraction. José turned back to see a man pop up and fire blindly. He then felt a thud near him. Behind him, Miss Ruth lay on the floor, dead. He couldn’t see where she had been hit.

Gritting his teeth to suppress the rage within him, José sprayed the window frames until the magazine was emptied. He shoved a full one into the rifle and resumed firing. They returned fire, and for a moment, the area was filled with a cacophonic roar.

Then finally, a lucky shot struck José in the right arm. He fell back against the booth, struggling to bring the rifle back up. It was time enough for a man to run through the front door and get a clear view of him.

Blood abruptly burst from the man’s face as a powerful shot reverberated through the diner. José jerked his head to the left and saw Henry standing at the counter with a smoking double-barrel shotgun in his hand. His blue eyes glistened with fresh tears as he walked across the room and past his wife’s body, his gaze fixedly placed on the men outside.

“You want this hellhole of a diner?!” he yelled with a strained voice. “Come and take it!”

Unfazed by the bullets zipping by his face, Henry emptied the other barrel and guffawed when he saw it take down another gang member. His bony fingers then struggled to work the break-barrel. He had just opened it when a voice cried out and was followed by three rapid shots.

Without a word, Henry slumped against the counter, his lifeless head turning to face Miss Ruth.

Dragging himself over to Henry’s body, José fought back tears as he closed the old man’s eyes. He then slid over to find Bill gasping for breath.

“You alright, kid?”

Bill had an odd expression on his face. He gestured with his head at Henry. “Beats dying of cancer, right?”

“I guess.”

Outside, it was quiet. José rose as much as he could and called out to the remaining gang members to come in and finish it. He then went back to check on Bill.

He was dead. Near the boy’s hip, he saw his trousers were soaked red. A hit to the artery.

José noticed the revolver by Bill’s side still holstered, now covered in blood. He slipped it out of the slick leather holster, wiping the blood on his leg. He then walked to the front entrance and pushed the door outward. Outside, three remained. They were unrecognizable as they huddled against one of their cars

Pulling the hammer back on the revolver he held pointed at the ground, José grinned. “Which one of tu puntas is the head-honcho?”

A moment later, one of them came out from behind the car with a pistol held awkwardly.

The whiner.

Like José, he too had taken a wound; his opposite hand bled profusely. But he seemed unconcerned as he drew closer to José as if to get a better look at him. When he finally stopped, he laughed.

You dead.”

He wasn’t prepared for when José chuckled. “You should have picked the damn apples.”

The whiner snapped his arm up and shot from the hip. José did the same, using his opposite hand to shove the hammer back again and again and again and again as his discharged all six shots in the cylinder.

The air became silent. José and the whiner stared at one another.

Then the whiner wordlessly crumpled on the pavement. A pool of blood quickly formed by his side.

The last two men fled as a blaring sound swept through Main Street, signaling the arrival of a sheriff’s deputy, who pulled up in a large SUV and parked it. Meanwhile, the locals poured out from the storefronts and gathered along the sidewalk beside the diner.

The deputy got out and looked at the dead bodies. “What the hell happened here?”

The Hispanic locals turned away and pretended as though nothing had happened, leaving José to face the deputy, who then approached him. “Care to tell me what happened?”

Still holding the revolver at his side, José spoke quietly but clearly. “Depends. What’s your view of vigilante justice?”

The deputy held a poker face behind his large aviator glasses. He put his hands on his belt buckle. “Depends on the vigilante and the justice.”

“Go take a look inside that diner and tell me what kind you think it was.”

The deputy did so. He was gone for less than a minute before coming out and tipping his hat to José.

“There are two more left out there,” José said.

“We’ll be taking care of them. Don’t worry.”

As the deputy got on his radio, José looked at the locals. Their once aloof demeanors had transformed into awed deference. He threw them a reproachful glare before returning to the diner. Seeing the coffee pot still on the counter, he poured the small remaining amount into a spare mug. Sitting back in his stool, he placed the revolver on the countertop.

He sipped the coffee carefully and then sighed in relief. “That’s the best damn stuff I’ve ever tasted.”


“The Final Command” won third place in Terror House’s Pulp Submission Contest. To read all of the winning stories, click here.