About Word Getting Round
Almost the Fall: A Novel
Chapters One to Eight
It was near two years since the War of the Rebellion. He’d managed to survive the cannons and the cold, the swamps and bayonets. Johnny Reb stole one of his fingers and gifted him a limp that festered more than it let up. No matter. Being alive was the point. To crawl over dead limbs and dead fields, to come out breathing at all, he figured it a sign from the Maker.
He sought no recompense from the South. Recompense would require more accounting, going back over land already bled for. South was no longer an idea. Just another direction.
Like so many of the wasted might’ve wanted, he ventured west after the War.
It was an isolated, simple spread, but there was plenty of grass and water. Far as living alone for the sake of you and yours, theirs was a blessed spot. A cow and some pigs. More than a few chickens. A sturdy horse. Their crops came in weak the first year, flush the next. It was hard work like any, but the air was free from men’s meddling and the ground was mostly green until the winter snows. The only blood he saw came from too much time on the shovel or the plow.
Different brands of blood. Something never thought on before the War. Now he knew different.
“Strange thing, ain’t it?” he asked, looking out on the worked land and beyond. Rows and rows and then forever until the mountains. It made his contribution seem insignificant in the best of ways. The stream ran lively in the background while he held his tongue for a response.
“I’m supposing you want me chasing after you,” she said, tilting her head down at the son they’d made together, standing between them. The boy was near knee-high to his father and strangely sturdy on his little feet.
“Chase me?” he asked. He’d stay confused until she made herself clear. That was their way and always had been.
She sighed and issued a smile too small for him to find. “I never was partial to fancy talking men,” she said, “but you lay your words down like a half a hand of cards. Dribs and drabs.”
He turned and used a dirty finger to push up the brim of his hat.
“Fine. What’s strange?” she asked, playfully giving in.
Their son raised up his arms like trying to steady a horse and they each grabbed a hand, swinging him just off the planks of the porch. He laughed through all points of the pendulum, back and forth, until their shoulders started to fuss.
“Living,” he said, easing the boy to a solid landing. “It’s strange.”
“I’m fairly certain that’s an observation made by many of our predecessors,” she answered. “Adam and Eve went on at length, I’d venture. Tiresome, those two.”
He put one hand on his son’s head, guiding his little body forward. His other hand found a home on his wife’s warm cheek. “My Nell. Always making light of things.”
“Takes a lot of work.”
“Does it?” he asked, kissing her other cheek.
“Indeed it does. Good that I come from such witty stock.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and brought his lips down to hers. Husband and wife could smell each other’s day while their mouths lingered. It wasn’t pleasant or perfumed, but something better; earned and good. Living is strange, she thought.
He took her wrists and held her arms to his chest, strong, the way she liked. “Indeed it does, you said?”
“Indeed I did, John.” Nell gently kicked the toe of his boot. “It’s a matter of balancing the scales. Proportions and the like.”
“Oh you see,” she laughed, pushing his brim a bit higher. “You rustling around with the deep and dark—”
“Yes ma’am. You’re doing your part, providing the light.”
Her eyes opened wide as their little boy tried to push his way back between their legs. “Huh. I guess you do get it. Maybe my husband isn’t the brute I cried about the day he was foisted upon me.”
“Well I’ll be sure to thank God while I tend to supper.”
John watched her walk inside and picked up his boy. “Your mama’s something else, Joely.” As he filled the swine trough with water and checked on the main barn, it came back to him. His point about the strangeness of life. He was relieved Nell had derailed his line of thinking—how obvious his mind worked compared to hers. She’d gotten a proper education while he was off fighting. His wife spent years learning to use her brain he while spent the same time trying to turn his off.
His miseries were nothing special. A twisted up thought, but true all the same. War was just another blight by man towards man. He’d contributed his portion to the foul feast. One more mountain of bodies in the range of human catastrophe. No call for complaining. No reason. A pretty wife, good land. A fine boy.
So much life. On the other side of the darkest time he could imagine, so much beauty and life. That’s all he’d meant to say back there, staring out from the porch. Strange.
John continued to hold his son while he brushed the horse. The boy was still struggling for words, face red and brimming over with things to express. The little noises he let out sounded something like Zeus without the Z.
“That’s right, Joel. You wantin’ to help me brush down the old Zeus?”
The mature horse nickered with approval as the father guided the boy’s little hand across his back. Joel’s big eyes were fixed while his papa explained the importance of taking care of a horse’s hair. “Supposing we saddle the old boy and there’s mud or a pebble of some such rubbing under all the weight—wouldn’t be proper or kind, would it Zeus?”
The lesson continued for a few minutes until John heard his wife’s voice calling out from the house.
“Yeah, we’re coming,” he said, setting the brush and his son down. “Let’s go, Joely. Sounding like we’re late for supper.”
Nell was in the barn before they could make it out. “Riders coming,” she said.
After handing off the boy, John was outside, weaving his way through the pens and toward the house. He squinted north and made out five tiny dots on the horizon. The dipping sun wasn’t much help. Damn she’s got good eyes he thought, walking into the house. As he grabbed his rifle from above the mantelpiece, Nell was behind him, fetching his pistol and two leather ammunition belts.
“You’re loaded,” she said, handing over his rig.
“What about you?” he asked.
She pulled out her own pistol and nodded. They worked in seamless concert and without wasted words. It was cooperation that had seen them through the perils of the journey. Had it not come natural, they never would’ve made it out of Pennsylvania.
Nell’s pretty pale face was showing signs of muted concern. A wrinkle or two on her forehead, but most of her emotions were corralled. They’d run this drill many a time before. They were three miles south of the main trail leading into town, close enough to get an occasional stray soldier or settler looking in.
“I’ve got need of your vision,” John said, leaning against the front door frame.
She looked over his shoulder and out toward the riders. They were defined now, less than a half mile out. The cloud of dust from their horses grew thicker in their wake as they charged on.
“What do you think?” he asked. “Dang sun’s too low for me to make out much of anything.”
“They’re all liveried different,” she said. “And they’ve got their rifles out.”
That sound, like faraway thunder, started to rumble and build as the horses neared the farmhouse. “Doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” he said, cocking his own rifle. “But head out the back door and get down by the river bank. Cross if you have to, get to the woods. Keep Joely close.” John handed his wife a handful of cartridges for her pistol and gave her a look that stayed her from any arguments. He was right to be cautious. They certainly weren’t soldiers or settlers—not without uniforms or wagons.
Cattle pushers, maybe, but there wasn’t a herd. Could be they had a hurt man, though unlikely; all five seemed to be riding high and hard.
Nell dropped the extra bullets into her dress pocket and picked her boy up. We can talk later, she thought, leaving her husband still leaning against the door. She cradled Joel in one arm and carried the heavy pistol in the other, thirty seconds trot to the bank. Now the quaint sound of the river was a curse. She wanted desperately to hear the interaction to come, but they were too far away. The water played over the rocks and her son smiled back at her concerned face. “We’re fine,” Nell said, squeezing the boy tight. “Your papa’s plenty tough.” As much as she knew it, a black sort of worry was choking her. What had led them here? The panic made everything they’d sacrificed and worked for a folly. The little stretch of dirt from her to the cabin was an impossible distance, infinitely farther than the country they’d managed to cross. “You papa’s plenty tough,” she said, over and over again.
They pulled up in front of the house in formation, one man out front, like birds fleeing winter’s cold. John’s struggling eyes danced left and right but he held a non-threatening stance, leaning against the frame of the door. His rifle rested diagonally against his chest, right hand near but not on the trigger. His pistol was cocked and ready just below his left hip.
As they skidded their horses to a stop, the lead rider was the first to speak. “Howdy.” He held up his hands and forced a smile. “Apologies for barging up unmannered.” The rider took off his hat and rubbed a shirtsleeve across his tanned brow. John could see he was a young man with a confident face and unusually straight white teeth.
“What can I do for you gentlemen?” John asked. He looked from left to right once more. The riders seemed more fatigued than dangerous, but prospecting after their intentions would be ill-advised.
“We’re needing food. Water for the horses.” The answer came from the thickly-set man to the leader’s right. He was severe in manner and odd to the eyes; hair long and blond, almost white. A beard dark as coal. “How far to the nearest town?”
John squinted as the daylight continued to wane. “Pinewood is about a half day’s ride west. That trail y’all were on will take you straight through.”
“You suggesting we get moving?” asked the blond man. It was clear he was spoiling for trouble. Only question was, how much.
The leader pointed an admonishing finger at his companion. “That ain’t the way, Clyde. Keep it under your hat.” He turned back to John, all teeth and goodwill. “I apologize, Mister—”
“Wilkins. John Wilkins. Y’all are welcome to a meal. Stream’s got plenty of water. I’d put you up for the night but there’s not much room for accommodating.”
“That’s kind of you, Mr. Wilkins,” the leader said, pulling out a gold watch from his vest pocket. My name’s Dan Clayton. I hate being a source of imposition but it’s an offer I’d be foolhardy to pass on. We’ll supper and then push to town.”
Just as they were about to dismount, the one called Clyde asked, “You have any women?”
It could’ve been asked in any tone or manner. The question issued from a pauper or the president. It made no matter. Living free meant there were things you didn’t ask another man. Everyone that got on a horse or in a carriage and ventured west knew the weight of their transgressions. Clyde was no exception, and he left John no choice. “Everyone stop,” John said. The stock of his rifle found a home against his shoulder as he pointed it stiffly at Clyde. He chambered a .44 round with smooth proficiency. “And go ahead and set those guns down.”
With spit and disdain Clyde said, “That’s gotta be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen.” He laughed and looked at the other members of his group. “A damn farmer raising his gun to the Clayton Gang. And all by his lonesome.”
John felt the cool dry wind against his eyes, but he didn’t blink. “The Clayton Gang—no offense, but never heard of you.”
Dan Clayton motioned for the others to drop their rifles. “No offense taken, Mr. Wilkins. We’ll be on our way. Truth is, we’re looking for someone. It’s our heavenly commission to find him.”
Clyde started to say something but Clayton held up a steady hand to signal silence. “Anyone ride past here today, maybe yesterday?”
“Haven’t seen anyone for more than a week,” John said, trying to give every man all the focus he could muster, watching for any threatening moves. “Some boys with a herd driving ‘em up north.”
“I believe you,” Clayton said, leaning back in his saddle, “because this is the sort that leaves an impression.”
“Sorry I can’t help.”
“I’m sorry too,” said Clayton, drawing his pistol with smooth, startling speed. John reacted by firing at Clyde but didn’t have time to lever another round. He had two bullets in his right shoulder in a second’s time, both from Clayton’s six-gun. Clyde was dead, slumped over in his saddle with a hole through the head.
Clayton and his three remaining men dismounted swiftly and tied their horses to the little hitching post in front of the cabin. Smoke fouled the air and the horses fretted. It was their nature, after all, when exposed to the handiwork of unnatural man.
John was bleeding something awful, forced to his backside by the wounds. His shoulders were propped up against the front of the cabin, underneath the little window. As one of the gang approached him, he commissioned enough strength in his left hand to pull his pistol and fire. It hit the man square in the chest and dropped him right there on the porch, shaking the entire structure. Clayton yelled NO! to the other two and shot a hole straight through John’s pistol hand. “I’ll be, Mr. Wilkins. You cut my crew almost by half.” The leader stood over his bleeding body and kicked away the guns. “But I’m not angry,” he said, smiling strangely. “See Clyde there had too much mouth and not enough brains. Picker’s the one bleeding out here,” he said, finishing his own man with a shot that blew skull parts across John’s pants. “Obviously, he was lacking caution when it mattered.”
John reached for one of the scattered weapons but they were all too far away. His hands ran across the wooden slats in vain, collecting splinters and drawing blood from hardened palms.
Clayton knelt down beside the wounded farmer, reloading his revolver. “I’m pretty good with this,” he said, chambers fully occupied. “But it’s an instrument, is all. An offering.”
John kept on his clawing until the shock fully set in. “Just kill me and be on your way you son of a bitch.”
The gunman looked at his two remaining men, standing behind with the horses. They were skinny and something nearing rabid. Weather and hard living had stripped their faces down to mere nubs of humanity. “That’s Russ and Cal,” he said, “they’re mighty young, wild oats still calling to be sewed.” Clayton turned back and stuck the barrel of his pistol into John’s hand wound. A ponderous expression found home on his face. “There’s a nice ring, Mr. Wilkins. Best not to wear adornments out here. Tips people to your lot…”
From John’s right, a shot rang out. Dan Clayton’s body was yanked back and he fired fast in the direction of the muzzle flash. Russ and Cal were too slow to react to the exchange. Nell cried out in pain, falling to the mud next to her severed fingers. The gunslinger lifted his now wounded left arm to stay his men from firing and surveyed the damage with a laugh. “Winged me pretty good, Mrs. Wilkins,” he said, shaking out the pain. “Me and John were just broaching the topic of you.”
Nell writhed in the dirt, searching for her pistol. Good as her eyes were, she couldn’t see through the hurt. “No!” she screamed, over and over as Clayton made his way to her with crooked steps.
“One of those things,” he said, “me noticing the ring on John’s finger. And now here you’ve lost some of yours.” She kept on screaming until he grabbed her by the throat. “Hush now, darling.” Clayton whispered. “Carrying on like you got the madness. I don’t know.” He sighed and held her firm in his leathered grip. Her tear-stained face seemed a source of intense fascination. He turned it so it caught a little piece of the moonlight. “What madness made you leave your child out there?”
John was starting to lose sense but he made one last attempt at one of the weapons scattered about. “Leave her alone you bastard! Go to hell!”
Cal and Russ rushed over and kicked the guns to a safe distance. John looked up, begging mercy for his wife.
“She’s a pretty thing, Mr. Wilkins,” Clayton said, dragging her back near the front door. “Real pretty.” The gunman gave her one last look. “And she must love you something awful, trying a rescue, leaving your little one on its lonesome.” He laughed once more and kissed her on the forehead as she wriggled against his grasp. “Indeed. Madness or love. Not too far a distance between the two.”
Clayton looked at his men and motioned for them to take Nell. “Do it here, so Mr. Wilkins can watch.”
“Please,” John said. “Please.”
The gang leader once again knelt next to John. He took off his glove and put a hand on the planter’s head. “A nasty portion, this being the last thing you see in this world.”
Clayton set his hat on the tiny wooden horse on the porch. “You should’ve hid that, John. First thing I would’ve done, if’n I was the family sort.” He was whispering now. “Your wife should’ve run. Madness.”
John tried to say something but his mouth was beginning to fill with blood.
“Just rest. Any consolation, I’ll make it quick for the little one. Not right leaving it out there for the wolves.”
Clayton picked up his hat and walked past the screams and convulsions at the foot of the porch steps. He tried to cancel out the sounds of horror by looking up, imagining all the quiet between himself and the moon. He guessed at it being quiet, anyway.
As Nell fought her last fight and John took in his last breaths, Dan Clayton dropped to his knees in front of the crop field. He made a large circle in the dirt with the butt of his revolver and drew two horizontal lines through the circle. Setting aside all his weapons, he stepped into the circle and sat down cross-legged, quietly crying and uttering words beyond the apprehension of most.
Later, he and his men would look for the child, but their search would be in vain. Little Joel was on a horse, held tight in the arm of a large, leather-skinned man. He happened along the youngster well after the shooting commenced. Two things about the hand that clutched Joel tight to his body: First, it belonged to the very man the Clayton gang was trailing. Second, the hand bore a strange tattoo from the top of the wrist to the knuckles.
A tattoo of a circle with two horizontal lines.
Chapter One: Lip
“There is but one thing we can seek with a mind toward what matters. One thing that can’t be moved when we strip it all away. The loves and desires of this world, enticing as they may be, are nothing compared to the Glory of God.”
Everyone in the little church was transfixed on Phillip Laird, the young man behind the pulpit. The ladies in the service tried not to fixate on his bold green eyes and precociously handsome face, but that was a battle generally surrendered before undertaken. The men, young and old, couldn’t help but admire his passion and sense for the Good Book.
Today, though, it was a whole heap more than that. As adept as the Pastor was at handling the Message, this was no ordinary service. A body lay still in the house next to the church—the body of the man who’d preceded Phillip in the running of the church. One of the founding members of the town of Thunder Hill. Man woman and child alike did their best not to stir and cry at the thought of Ben Laird, stiff and cold, spirit already ascended, body prepared for the dirt.
Between words of hope and comfort, the congregation couldn’t help but hear the sounds of the less devoted to God and their fellow man. It wasn’t Sunday; the usual din of a working town continued steady on, outside the church walls.
“Ben built this house of praise and worship with his own hands and sweat, alongside many of you, when I wasn’t even a pup.”
As old men and women nodded and grumbled their agreement, the solemnity was punctured with the tinny sound of a faraway piano and unfettered hollering from afternoon drinkers. Many began turning toward the door to express their disdain.
“C’mon now folks,” Phillip said, bringing the attention back his way, “that don’t sound like Armageddon—more like a few wagon loads a ranch boys blowin’ steam before heading back out to it. Ben wouldn’t judge those men, but I’ll tell you what…” The young preacher set down his Bible and stepped purposefully out in front of the pulpit, standing straight and true, inflating his rugged chest and shoulders as a physical manifestation of spiritual strength. A tiny smile snuck from the side of his mouth as he sunk his hands in his pockets. “I think he’d want to be the center of attention, just this once.”
The congregation laughed, pining after a collective moment of release. Not everyone packed into the pews believed the same, but they were all there to pay some measure of homage or respect to Ben. Phillip leaned slightly toward the attendees and forged ahead with his message, pressing across the battle lines and checking his emotions all the while. He wondered if they could sense the maelstrom breeding chaos in his soul. Like Mr. Caesar at Pharsalus, unsure of the outcome, but sure that ahead and head high was the only way. For now, at the least. A time for every purpose. Solomon’s inscrutable wisdom. He’d had need of it now.
They didn’t know what he knew. The things whispered to him by Ben during the church founder’s dying days. Or maybe some of them did. He snuck a glance at his family in the front row. His sister Elsie looked up at him with salt-burdened, loving eyes. As she cried the tears of a grieving daughter, did she know? Mabel Laird, his mother, the new widow—dignified and well-presented to the last—did she know? Of course she did. Phillip tried to imagine a scenario that ended with her innocence or ignorance on the matter, but none came to mind.
And now that he was privy, what good did it do? He looked at ruddy-cheeked Sydney, his good-hearted but troubled older brother, looking puffy and wrong for his surroundings as always, one of two young Thunder Hill deputies. Perhaps he’d broach the subject with Syd. Surely not today. But soon. Or not. Oh God, what to do?
“So let’s not get too caught up attaching ceremony or tradition to this day. Pa wasn’t about such things. I’m of limited years and limited wisdom, but I doubt there’s many a man of faith that put less stock in all the ‘nonsense’ surrounding belief.”
Another reference to the man they’d gathered for. It helped Phillip recapture their attention and lent him a tick to try and put his personal gripes on hold.
“Nonsense,” the young man said, making bold gestures with his hands.
It was a bad impersonation, but they got the point. Ben would always wave his long fingers in front of his face and say, “That’s a hot pile of nonsense,” never failing to follow the gesture with a tiny wink and a country-size smile. The attendees in the church had their own memory pictures of the man, and in capturing them, they felt an impossibly pure mixture of grateful and sad; a formula rendered by looking back on a life lived right before man and God.
After a prayer and some grateful words from the family to the attendees, Phillip walked over to the Wilson family house. It wasn’t more than twenty paces from the church door. It was a sturdy affair with a little garden out front and yellow flowers underneath the windows. Not the biggest place in town, but it was immaculately looked after by Mabel and Elsie. Besides the green roof, the house was as white as the church that it sat next to, at Mother’s insistence. She said if God took up in a white residence, so should she. Like most things mentioned sideways by a woman, his adoptive father took it as a joke and a threat, in equal portions.
Old. Ben never really had the chance to be old. Phillip lamented this truth as he stepped slowly up to the open coffin sitting in the front room. A man in a fine black suit with slicked-back hair gray as tinsel sat hunched on a little stool by the body. One might think he was lost in prayer, but Phillip knew better. He was holding his stomach, practicing a sort of breathing ritual. “Doc Rufus,” the young man said. The three syllables cut through the whole house, powerful and unwavering. Lip couldn’t bear to speak softly. He feared in his guts that any cracks or delicacies in his manner might turn him to a puddle on the floor. “Is that some new technique for wrangling a hangover? Something from one of your New York medical journals?”
“Medieval. Worse. Prehistoric. This country is behind. Sadly behind. If I could get some publications from France or England out here to this backwater, maybe there’d be something worth reading.”
“But I doubt that would even do me any good. We’re centuries away from catching back up to the Greeks or Romans. Persians. They had fine physicians.”
“The Persians. You only throw them in after particularly long nights.”
“Well, good reason for it. You do your part, youngster?” Rufus asked, rubbing his thick mustache. He was proud of each and every whisker, as long as they remained dark. The physician claimed that his facial hair was proof that he was a man no older than thirty to any woman passing through town.
“I sank my heels in—got through,” Phillip answered, accepting a sturdy hug as the older man rose to his feet. Doc Rufus was a man in his early 50s, near as tall and strong as Phillip. The preacher couldn’t remember an embrace from the town surgeon that didn’t require a little preparation or at least resolution. As they slapped each other’s broad shoulders Phillip said, “You might’ve come in the church this once. I know it’s not your way, but heck.”
The doctor grabbed his lapels and looked down in self-defense. He wasn’t ashamed—nothing like that—he just didn’t think a quarrel appropriate, given the setting and the circumstances. He decided a grunt followed by silence to be the best course of action. Rufus understood the boy’s state of mind. They were looking down at the doctor’s closest friend: Elias Rufus had struggled and bled alongside the departed. They’d cleared forests, fought off Indians, traversed a whole country together. That the doctor and the preacher agreed on very little was a hard bit of philosophy for any youth to chew—even one as sharp and clear-headed as Lip.
“Sorry, Doc,” Phillip whispered, sensing he’d stepped on proper etiquette. “I’m tired, I think. And it’s more than that. More than this whole deal,” he said, motioning toward the casket. The body was so strangely inert; the absence of life rendering it somehow more dead than the box that contained it. The simple casket sat there on dirty sawhorses, waiting to be observed and inspected by the interested townsfolk.
“I can see you’re full of complications,” Rufus said, almost cryptically. His inquisitive blue eyes sharpened toward Phillip and then relaxed again. “Are the rubes coming in?”
“You can hear them out there as good as I can.”
“This is one tradition I’ll never understand,” the doctor said, pulling a flask from his back pocket. He took a short pull and then let Phillip have one. “What do the rubes get out of seeing a body? I can indulge a gathering, telling tales, remembering. But the spying of a breathless being—not even a being at all—the rubes are an astonishing lot.”
The intake of liquor momentarily twisted the preacher’s face. “You’re in here, paying your respects. Judge not, if’n you please. And what do you get out of calling everyone a rube? How you settle on these terms—I find quite astonishing.”
Rufus beckoned the flask back with a thick hand. “Me being here’s different. You know that.” He gave the younger man a hearty slap on the back. “I love you, Lip. But as for your astonishment—well, follow that river to its source. You’ll find an almost incalculable lack of experience at that headwater.”
Before Phillip could muster a response, the door swung open and Mabel walked in with typically short, determined steps. She held out her hands and managed a warm expession, signaling the start of the procession of people, prayers and personal messages. Her eyes, now observably swollen from grief, shot holes through her son and then turned with vigorous ire toward the silver-haired doctor. “I don’t want you here, Rufus,” she said, as mannered as she could. “Please find your way out the back. I’d appreciate a quick exit.”
The doctor donned his signature low gray top hat and retreated with a bow to Mabel and Phillip. He walked past the narrow staircase then skirted through the kitchen where he’d broken bread so many times before. Of course, those were nights when Mabel’d been out with the women’s church group. A secret not so well kept—those meals were almost famous around town: everyone imagining Preach, Doc and Sheriff Cox all exchanging stories and whiskey over a warm dish. When Doctor Elias Rufus, as he liked to be called in public, was asked what they discussed, he would touch the brim of his hat and say, “Some things aren’t for public consumption.”
Mabel gave Phillip one more look of admonishment and nestled her petite frame between his body and the casket of her late husband. She starting waving people in with the smallest little dutiful smile on her lips. “You shouldn’t talk to that old heathen,” she whispered between handshakes. The line was awkward, as people had to go out the way they came.
Between God bless you’s and thanks for coming’s, Lip whispered back, “I’m sorry, Ma. He was here paying his respects, just like everyone else.”
“I know you’re partial to him,” Mabel said. “Heaven help me, your father was. Despite me. Maybe to spite me. No—I shouldn’t have been so rude. Y’all didn’t deserve it.”
Lip put his arm around the women who’d raised him as her own. “This isn’t a day you apologize for anything, Ma. I love you. Everybody loves you. Even that old heathen.”
Mabel almost let out a defensive laugh. She bumped Lip with her hip as they kept coming, one handshake after the next. Otto Buchholz, the blacksmith, with his entire brood. The town surveyor and his wife. Lindy Samuels, with her new fiancé. Phillip was wondering if she’d show. He lowered his emerald eyes as he took her warm little hand. She did a full curtsy that gave off hints of flirtation. Or maybe not. The gesture riled Elsie; she was standing next to him now. Sydney sat on a windowsill in the corner, chewing on a toothpick and looking out the window with a hangdog expression. He fiddled with his crooked hat and rubbed his paunch, typically unable to summon the requisite patience for observing decencies.
More and more piled in. Phillip tried not to wince as they scuffed up his mother’s prized rug and filled the house with whatever smell they couldn’t get off their clothes that morning.
Lip was reeling from the consistent sorrow that hung over everything. It was inescapable. The little draft that always managed to find a path through the house was stunted by all the bodies. A coat of sweat began to form on his usually pacific face. There was still the burial. God help me.
The crack of three distant gunshots sliced their way through his thoughts. Everyone present stiffened and apprehensively their heads toward the noise outside. Sydney roughly pushed his way out the door and started running in the direction of the gunfire. “Syd!” Phillip yelled, pulling his mother and sister close. “Keep them all here if you can. I’m going to see what that’s about.”
He didn’t wait for a response. His father’s Colt was in the study next to the stairs. He grabbed it and checked the load and action, spinning the oily chamber and snapping it closed again. Quickly he was out the backdoor and around the front of the house, running heavy through the thick mud of the Thunder Hill’s main thoroughfare.
It didn’t take long to see. Two men were down in the street, not moving. Phillip recognized them—the Collier brothers, sons of one of the county’s prominent ranchers. Another man he didn’t recognize was leaning against the hitching post in front of the saloon, bleeding from a wound in the right leg. Sheriff Cox, Syd, and three others were training their pistols at the hobbled man, yelling with hammers cocked. Phillip skidded to a stop at the periphery of the fracas. “Everybody calm down,” he said, gripping his father’s pistol tight in his right hand. He didn’t have the weapon raised. There seemed to be enough of that at the moment. “The man’s wounded.”
“Back,” the newcomer said, using the post to turn his focus to Lip. He was a singularly large black-haired man who didn’t seem too put out by the bullet in his leg or the numbers stacked against him. He started raising his pistol again but stopped, looking directly into the green of Phillip’s eyes. The shouting continued and the big man appeared to be somewhere else all of a sudden. He dropped his weapon and slumped to the ground, wind gone from his sails. Phillip was fixated on the face of the outsider. It was dark, made darker by a layer of dirt caked across his cheeks and forehead. Only that wasn’t what had Laird’s focus captured. There were two vertical lines below the eyes of the wounded man where is skin was slightly lighter. He was crying, and somehow without knowing a thing, Phillip could tell that this wasn’t the sort to go bawling over something as trivial as a bullet wound.
“Stay out of this, Lip,” Cox said, slowly closing the distance to the shooter. “And stay still there, chief. I’ll blast you a new hole if you’re apt to reach back for that gun.” The sheriff was lean and taller than average—not to mention tough as a coffin nail. He had a crooked nose and dark eyes, not to mention the focused aspect of someone you ignored at your peril. He wore the same type of denim shirt and sheepskin-lined leather jacket every single day, on account of being superstitious. Amos Cox had faith in his skill as a lawman and pride in the way he did the job, but he also figured never getting shot was based on some measure of plain old luck. He’d worn a uniform for the Union during the dark days of the war, and now he wore another. Cox had no inclinations toward changing his ways as long as the current state affairs was keeping him above the dirt. “Back away!” he commanded. “All of you!”
Everyone did what they were told. Lip was confused and angry. Selfish thoughts flooded his mind. His father still needed burying. He still needed answers. There hadn’t been a shooting in Thunder Hill in ten years. Now two bodies in the street. This strange man at the center of it. Phillip looked at the gun in his hand and turned his head back toward the church. Time to get back to being the dutiful adopted son. The spiritual torch had been passed down from Ben. No one else was picking it up. You’re going to be a house divided, but don’t let it go too long. Something Ben would say. Typical of the man’s forgiving nature and his wisdom. He knew that the righteous path wasn’t a perfect path, that a man could be of two minds. He also knew not to make it a habit. Like being out in the street with a gun during your father’s funeral.
Chapter Two: Loot (A Few Days Earlier)
He was set up in the hills behind three granite boulders that tended toward pink in the sun. A small hole afforded enough space for him to point the barrel of his rifle down the slope. Someone was riding slow up the trail to his cabin, and he wasn’t much partial to hosting company.
He had his repeater aimed at a point that anyone sticking to the trail would have to cross, maybe a hundred yards down the way. His calloused trigger-finger was at the ready when he heard a weary voice call out, “Loot! You up there!?”
His finger relaxed and his body unstiffened as a familiar face passed by the hole in the rocks. He got to his feet and dusted off his heavy wool pants, walking around the boulders toward the trail. The familiar face was close now, attached to a leathery neck, sitting atop a horse that looked as worn down as the rider. “When you going to learn to make yourself known farther down the hill?”
“You wouldn’t shoot down your old friend Jasper Bedford.”
“The point is, I don’t know it’s my friend. My mutt blood doesn’t give me magical powers, you old gimp.”
Jasper rocked back and forth awkwardly in his saddle as he neared Loot. “I can’t ever remember when I’m supposed to call out. Sorry. I get confused with all the rocks and the trees. Everything out here tends to blend. It’s not my usual locale, as you well know.”
Loot took his visitor’s reins and ushered the horse up a widening trail carpeted with pine needles to his home; a little cabin, fashioned out from the mossy cliff-side. “If you’re feeling unsure, it’s best to make your introductions on the before side of things.”
“Your logic is concurrently concise and unimpeachable as always, my friend.”
“Get on down now. Come inside and I’ll get you some coffee. I can smell the whisky on you, so I reckon you feel warm—”
“I do indeed.”
“Well, you look like you might freeze to death. Take my hand. I’ll help you off.”
“Thank you. I think my horse might be getting old. It took a ghastly spell to get up here. More importantly, my procreative elements suffered greatly from this unforgiving saddle. The leather is harder than diamonds.”
Loot patted the old mare on the gray hairs just above her droopy brown eyes and smirked. “I think your horse might be getting ready to fall down dead.”
“Oh,” Bedford said, looking like Loot’s leap in logic was revolutionary, scratching his chin. “That would be a dreadful loss. I really enjoy this horse, despite the deleterious effect riding has on my balls.”
“You’re strange. Even for an old white man, Jasper. What brings you?” Loot asked, opening the door to his little hideaway. It was tidier than one might expect from the outside. A dry, single room setup, heated by a large cast-iron potbelly stove. Transporting it up the steep hill had most likely whittled years from Loot’s life.
“Yes,” Jasper said, removing a tan duster that appeared to be borrowed. He placed it on one of two chairs in the cabin and took to his seat like he’d just endured the whole forty years of wilderness. “I know you value your privacy.”
Loot looked around as he pulled the other chair close to Jasper. “Value might not be the right word, newspaperman. People don’t hole up like this without necessity hammering in some of the nails.”
“Of course,” Jasper said, patting the top of his glistening head. He was about the only “European” Loot had ever known that refused to wear a hat. It didn’t make much sense to him or anyone else, considering the restless nature of the man’s hair. It was sparse and curly, the color of chalk and or soot, depending on the spot. There was something to it, though. Bedford had soft brown eyes and a permanent slumping of the shoulders to go along with the disordered hair. Humility, or the appearance of it. As if the idea of the “other guy” dictated his posture. Most people that met the wrinkled writer gave right in to his winning ways. In that regard, Loot, as much as he’d deny it, was like most people. “Solitude sometimes is best society,” Jasper said, all thumbs, trying to find the old feeling of familiarity with his host. It had been months since their last encounter.
“Who said that?”
“It’s Milton—Paradise Lost—forget it. Foolish.”
“Paradise Lost, huh? Well, that’s a title I can get my head around. The lost part, anyhow.”
“I’ve said it before, but a woman or two could really make time go faster. Isolation is fine, but life needs punctuation marks.”
“You’re saying what you’re always saying? Using different words?”
“Copulation, my good man. I can always hire a few beauties to make you forget about things.”
“What things in particular?”
“Anything in particular. Or anything in general. I find that in general, a little action can cover a multitude of particulars.”
“You’re a lecherous son of a bitch, Jasper. Harmless on the whole, but I don’t know how you get through a day without paying for affection.”
“I usually don’t,” returned the writer, playfully hitting Loot on the arm. “But,” Jasper started, now all of a sudden embarrassed. His sunken pale cheeks turned ruddy, regretting the frivolous nature of what he’d said. There was hard truth on the docket and a swift tonal change wasn’t the best way to go about things. Still. “I came to tell you—word from Thunder Hill came through on the telegraph. That’s the machine—we’ve had one for a spell—”
“I know all about it. Ain’t been a time I’ve seen you when you don’t go on and on over the dang thing.”
“Of course. Anyway, word is that Ben Laird’s dead. Happened yesterday.”
Loot turned his head as he heard the news, like dodging a punch. “How?”
“Fever grabbed him up and didn’t let go. Only took a week, start to finish. Said the last few days it was like he was breathing underwater.” Jasper looked down and clasped his hands, realizing the air had all but left the cabin. He raised his head for a mere second to observe the figure standing over the homemade table: Loot Moreno was as formidable in appearance as any person he’d ever set eyes on. Striking in his physicality, no matter how many times Jasper slapped eyes on him. A neck like a tree trunk. Legs bigger than the average fella’s waist. Hair blacker than the blackest midnight ran down just south of his shoulders—not a hint of gray, despite a run of years now stretching well into middle-age. Moreno’s thin blue eyes didn’t seem to belong on a face with such uniformly olive skin, but that could traced back to his unique extraction. Loot’s mother was a white settler who’d come over with her family from somewhere in the high climes of Europe. Jasper’d heard rumors of a scandal—some sort of affair with one of society’s “undesirables.” A young rider that caught her eye, apparently named Moreno. He was hanged shortly after Loot’s birth. He was Mexican and part Indian—no notion of what tribe. The one time Bedford spoke with Moreno about his past, the man acted like it made no difference. No allegiance to any people or group had ever rendered him a damn thing, he said. The only tribe he’d ever joined turned him rotten. He explained it through, but didn’t help Bedford make sense of it. The man’s past was something Jasper found endlessly fascinating, but the writer made no more approaches toward it. He’d respect Moreno’s wishes, much as his inquisitive nature told him to do otherwise. In a wide open country where the individual was a castle, Loot was a fortress on a hill so high, the clouds obscured his very existence.
“Damn. Preacher Laird. That’s a damn shame,” Moreno said, setting down a shaky tin cup of coffee in front of his guest. “Ben should’ve had some more years left in him.”
“I thought you’d want to know. And you don’t have to tell me what it was… the connection and the like. I know I’ve asked befo—”
Moreno put a hand over Jasper’s mouth. “You hear that?” he asked, hand still where he left it. It was large enough to cover most of the newsman’s saggy face. “Twig broke. Sounded not too far off.” Moreno listened a little longer and decided to act. With freakish agility he grabbed his repeater and glided out of the cabin, down the hill to his spot behind the three boulders. He fell to his chest silently, just in time to catch sight of black hair coming across his field of vision. One shot. Before the smoke cleared, he knew he hit his target dead between the eyes.
“Everything copacetic?” Jasper yelled, doing a bad job of moving quickly down to Moreno. Loot was leaning against one of the boulders by the time Bedford made his way. The newspaper owner was wiping sweat from his spotty forehead with the same red silk handkerchief Loot had seen time and again, trying to fill his lungs with the thin air.
“It was just a bear. Big one for a black. Had a good summer of eating, looks like.”
“That’s good,” Jasper said, still a little on edge from Loot’s sudden dash.
“Not really. I’m fixed for meat.”
“Why then—why’d you shoot him? Or did you miss?”
Moreno skipped over the second question. “Didn’t know it was a bear until I’d already fired. Thought someone might’ve followed you up here, Jasper.”
“I’d never give away your spot, Loot.” Despite his wily ways, Bedford could pull an honest face and mean it when the occasion called.
“I know. C’mon back inside and take a load off.” He walked up and stood square to his friend. “Guess I’m a little jumpier than normal. The news about Ben.” There was a solemnity in his voice that Bedford couldn’t recall hearing.
Loot finally took a seat, wind out of his sails. He was somewhere else, even in the close confines of the little cabin.
Bedford took a sip of coffee and coughed, saying, “Also wanted to tell you I was off to the funeral.”
“Well, I knew him. And there’s more than a few folks from Durington that are heading down.”
Loot wasn’t mad at the newsman. Just mad in general. People had every right to pay their respects to Ben Laird. And Jasper—he was the type of person that earned his keep and helped more than most would ever try. Still. “Sounds like bullshit. You’re wondering who’ll show up. Write one of your stories about it.”
“I don’t have any malicious intentions,” Jasper said. “I made plans to write something simple to honor the good pastor, but nothing beyond that.” He rubbed at his thin salt and pepper mustache as it quivered from nerves. Moreno’s voice was a locomotive engine when he called upon it. Arrestingly low and powerful.
“Sorry, JB.” Loot said, gentler now. “Guess I was out of step. But Thunder Hill’s a long ride. A day more than Fort Callaway, if you’re really about your business.”
“We’ve got three days until the service. They’re holding off, presumably on account of all the people coming in to say goodbyes.”
“Best be on your way then,” Loot said. His delivery was too flat and cold to be believable as an honest demonstration of his feelings; from years of asking people questions, Jasper could discern that much.
“I’m sorry,” Bedford said, standing up. “I really am.”
“It’s not your fault, Jasper.”
“I know. But I can tell you’re itching to go to Thunder Hill.”
“Sounds like they’ll be too many gawkers. I can’t risk it.”
“And I’m sorry about your friend.”
Loot stood up and held out a hand thick with muscles. “I appreciate you coming up here and giving me the news.”
Jasper took his hand and had one last look around the cabin. Orderly as it might be, he felt for his friend. The thing Milton said about isolation—at the moment it felt like manure steeped in lofty rhetoric. As publisher of the Durington Daily, he was well-versed on the subject. “Be seeing you, Loot.”
Moreno watched Bedford down the trail, one old horse on top of another. He’d kept his calm through the visit as best he could, but now he suffered from turmoil and violence rising against the sinews of his chest. He walked in circles over the flat ground in front of the cabin, shoving his hands into his denim jacket pockets. It was an exercise in resistance, trying to fight off good and bad urges in equal portion. In a life full of gunpowder and darkened decisions, Loot Moreno had only made a few friends that were worth a handshake. One was heading down the mountain, on his way to stand over the grave of another.
“No,” he said, over and over, walking the same circle until his boots had cleared the pine needles from his path. A taste like iron and ash filled his mouth and nose. The past and all its detritus was pressing on his brain, coming to the fore, dashing the little peace he had like breakers against rock.
Finally he stopped retracing steps and repeating words. Jasper Bedford was out of sight now, probably nearing the flats leading into Durington. The walk back to his cabin was labored and panicky. Despite the brisk air swirling against the mountain, little circles of sweat were collecting underneath his rugged arms. I’m just worried for the boy, he thought, looking down at his hand. He wanted the mark gone—more than that, he wanted to forget the time when he looked at it with pride. You’re just guilty, he thought, arguing with himself. It wasn’t an uncommon thing for Moreno, considering the isolated nature of his existence. This was different, though. This argument was going somewhere. It was about going somewhere. It won’t hurt to go check on him. Ben’s not around anymore. You can talk to Doc Rufus, make sure he’s okay. Phillip and the rest of the townsfolk of Thunder Hill will never know you were there. Just like always.
This was the logic that led Loot into his saddle and down the mountain. After packing enough provisions to quickly get there and back, he took the western hill trails that skirted Durington Valley and gave Fort Callaway an extra wide berth. It was a heap of strain to put on Pecos, but Moreno knew how far and long to push the muscular quarter horse. Despite the roundabout route, Loot made it to Thunder Hill’s vicinity ahead of the party that set off from Durington. No surprise. He’d spent most of his life in a saddle, chasing or being chased. Putting himself out to pasture—that was a fairly recent development, compared to the whole of things. Not enough time to unlearn the ways of getting around fast and quiet over difficult terrain.
After sighting the town, he stopped just above the tree line on the mountains to the south. Thunder Hill was plumb center in a valley flat as a table, surrounded by cliffs and mountains on all but one side. There was no way to approach without being seen for miles. “We’ll wait till dark,” he told Pecos, patting his deep brown coat just above the shoulder. Loot could hear the sound of water nearby; either a little mountain stream or waterfall. “Let’s get you a drink, brother,” he said, walking along the uneven slope, taking his time. It was no use lunging about and turning an ankle. Although the two-day trip had been steady as she goes, he had a sense that getting hobbled could mean the end. Maybe it was the feeling that his sand was on the wane; he’d never speak it out loud, but his legs and back were giving him fits. Loot held the reigns and watched each step carefully as the sound grew in intensity. “Not much fun off the beaten path, brother,” he whispered, guiding Pecos gently along. “Just a little farther and we’ll take rest till night’s black as coal. Then we’ll go see Doc.”
Chapter Three: Getting On
Phillip sat against the wall in his room above the Grimes General Store, heavy-eyed but unable to catch a wink. After the excitement of the shootout and the enervating pain of returning his father to the dust, he’d had more whisky in the last twelve hours than the whole of his life. Ambrose, his three year-old Golden Retriever, made a whimper and set his pointy nose across Phillip’s legs. The dog lifted his head and brought it down again and again.
“You understand me, don’t you boy?”
For a moment Ambrose stopped and looked at his master. Then he yawned and licked his lips. “Or—more likely, you need to eat and do your business.” Magic words. His tail began wagging furiously, thudding against the uneven floorboards every three or four cycles. “Fine,” Phillip said, peeling himself slowly from the floor. The movement set off little demons of pain throughout his body until they all seemed to gather in his head. “Mother of mercy,” he groaned, afraid to even rub his temples. Despite his condition, Ambrose was encouraged by the human’s progress and started scratching at the door. “Let me get the leash, Ambs.” Phillip tied the rope off short and tight; no choice, living on the town’s main thorougfare. Too much length and his dog could wind up underneath somebody’s horse or carriage. “Hold on, now,” he said, finishing up, fighting off the throbbing above his eyes. He held the dog collar with one hand and pulled hard on the rope so Ambrose wouldn’t choke. It seemed in good order. “Try not to explode on the front walk, will ya?” More scratching and wagging.
Before he could reach the knob, two gentle knocks were followed by a familiar voice. “Lip? It’s Lindy. You around, hun?”
Ambrose looked up at Phillip, who was suddenly paralyzed. A few whimpers from the dog helped him regain a measure of his senses. He opened the door and secured his pet. “Hey there, Miss Lindy.”
“How you faring, handsome?”
“I’m—okay. Maybe didn’t acquit myself too heroically in the wee hours last night—but okay.” He barely lifted his head as he spoke, letting his bangs fall over his eyes like a wave.
Without a lick of time or added ceremony, Lindy Samuels was across the threshold, kissing him square on the mouth. Her gloved hands wrapped tight around the back of his head as she pulled him down to stay the embrace. With his free hand, Phillip placed a hand on the small of her back. There was familiarity to the exercise. And shame.
“C’mon now, Lindy,” Lip said, gently pulling away.
She wouldn’t let go. Never did, really, once she got her hands moving. She loved to play with his hair while she talked and kissed. Lip didn’t understand what was so great about his hair or the great need to favor it over looking at him proper in the face. “Don’t push me away, Phillip Laird,” she said. So dramatic. Still insists on using both my names for some dang reason. Her fingers were unrelenting, turning his already disheveled mane into something even worse. “You need me right now.”
“I need you to go,” he pleaded, guiltily looking right and left like his home was a train station platform. “Somebody could’ve seen you come up here.”
“This ain’t Chicago, Lindy. It’s a small town and people are gonna talk. You’re getting married—dammit if he finds out, I’m likely to take a bullet in the back.”
Her face was no more than an inch away and all parts of their hips and legs were still tangled up. Lip felt shame and a hundred other things; every time they kissed it was like being pulled down to Hell and sent up to Heaven at the exact same time. He understood that at its core his dalliance with Lindy was a simple sin of the flesh, base and low. But he did feel for her. Of course a portion of him wanted to close the door behind and spend the day in her enthusiastic embrace, laughing and carrying on like consequences were nothing but myths. But not today. God help me not ever again.
And so, after a few more minutes of deflection and obfuscation, he was able to steer her back and out the door. She said something about it not being over while he repeated fine fine fine, all the time trying to keep her hands off his britches.
He slid down the door and listened to Lindy descending the steps. Ambrose sat in front of him, mouth closed and completely still. The animal looked disappointed. Lip almost laughed at the anthropomorphizing, but it wasn’t that funny. What did he know, anyway? Maybe Ben and Jesus and all the saints and angels were behind those messy dog eyes, using Ambrose as a vessel to witness the complete and utter destruction of a young soul. Or maybe the dog was just giving him a second. “Come here, boy,” Lip said, holding his hand out while Ambrose lowered his ears and gave over for a good hearty petting. “Just a few seconds more, pal. Got to space it out, in case anybody out there’s by the door.”
The dog wagged his tail and plopped his rear back down, craning his head forward make sure the petting kept on without interruption. Boy and dog enjoyed a moment or two of peace before Lip started to will himself back to his feet.
As he reached for the knob, three sharp knocks sent him reeling backwards. “You in there, Lip?” Another female voice, but not Lindy.
The remnant pain and agitation gave Phillip notions of playing silent, but Ambrose was reaching a breaking point and had played the good soldier long enough. “Yeah, Elsie. Coming out.” He opened the door and saw his sister standing on the landing, looking fit and proper in her black dress and hat. Twisting rivulets of blond fell down in faux chaos over her forehead.
“Aren’t you gonna put something on?” she asked, holding a purse Lip couldn’t stuff half a hand in.
“I’m wearing things. C’mon, my boy needs his time in the sun.”
“Alrighty. Usually some type of shirt is placed underneath the suspenders, though.”
“Sis,” he said, irritation in his voice, trying to control Ambrose down the steep, narrow staircase. His place had its own door, right next to the store entrance. That was the good news. Bad news was the stairs; a boot wrong and it’d be curtains.
“I’m sorry,” Elsie said, daintily following him down. If he was holding on for dear life she was floating like a feather—and making a show of it. “I’d be happy to walk with you and Ambrose, even though he’s dressed better.”
Once outside, Lip struggled to find a point ahead and stick to it, still doing battle with the headache. He was experiencing a good old-fashioned hangover. The prospect of ever drinking again seemed worse than death, but he had a feeling a lot of full-time drunks had fostered similar thoughts after their first hard stint with the bottle. “I think I’m dying, Seesee.”
“All things pass, big man. And I think it’s best to save the drama for your sermons.”
Elsie put a hand on his back and took the rope as they nodded past Mr. Haines the butcher and Mrs. McCarthy, the recently widowed schoolteacher. “We’re heading out back, Ambrose,” she said, moving the party along, “but you hold steady until we’ve got some privacy. Can’t have you adopting your master’s manners.”
She didn’t respond. Just walked into the tall grass behind the store with Ambrose while Lip leaned against the back wall of the building. A hazy minute or two went by and Elsie handed back control of the dog. “I understand the impulse to tear yourself asunder, but it’s past midday.” She made one more inspection, shaking her head. “Unfettered and unseemly isn’t your style, Phillip.”
“It’s past midday,” he said, kneeling down to pet his dog. Ambrose was calmer now, but still hungry. “Not two years from now. A little repose is all I’m asking for.”
“Alright,” Elsie said, realizing Lip wasn’t in fighting shape. She leaned up and whiffed his breath. “But what you need is a repast—anything to combat that presence. I’ll go back up and grab a shirt, feed the dog.”
“Stop. Go place yourself out front. My guess is you’ll put the other town beggars out of business by the time I get back.”
“Wherever more than one is gathered, somebody has to be wittier.”
“It never stops.”
“Never will,” she said, finally showing a smile of understanding. “Meet you out front.”
Five minutes later, Elsie emerged on the orderly little boardwalk outside Lip’s apartment. He was sitting with his long legs dangling over the side, still nursing his noggin. She threw a black shirt over his back along with a gray bandana. It crushed his heart all over. Making a show of mourning seemed an extra dose of cruelty to the ones needing comfort and the ones doing the comforting. No matter. Conventions.
After getting up and tucking in, Elsie asked if he was ready.
“Yeah. Probably need to change spots. Three little kids started poking me with a stick before you got out here.”
“You possess an undeniable gravitas,” she said, holding her head up and arm out for him to escort her. “Even partially adorned.”
They walked slowly, in and out of the overhang’s shade. Crossing two streets of hardened clay, they arrived at the French Café. Only the people that made Thunder Hill home used this appellation. To those passing through, it was simply The Café. Understandable. They served absolutely no French cuisine. An old fella named Beckett French owned the place, is all, and despite the lack of international cuisine, it was the best place (out of three) in town.
Despite being swollen with customers, several parties stood up and offered their tables as soon as the Lairds entered. Conversations about crops and cows and yesterday’s shooting skidded to a stop in every corner of the joint.
“Oh no, fellas. We couldn’t,” Lip said. Simple deferential instinct.
“Thanks George. Wilson, thanks so much,” Elsie said, taking the first seat offered. Before he could object, the young preacher could see a chair and a clear place set in front of him. He began to mumble something like an argument but was cut off. “Just pipe down and accept some courtesy. Let other people take care of you and stuff that mulish intransigence.”
“Nope,” Elsie said, holding up the little menu in front of her face. Phillip looked around and realized that elbow-to-elbow in the busiest spot in town was no place for a row. He took his medicine and began to brood in silence. Little Cara, French’s youngest daughter, came by with water. The young preacher came close to swallowing the glass whole. How can drinking the wrong thing make you so thirsty the next day? He thought there might be a sermon in there somewhere. The girl immediately came back and refilled his glass, big honest eyes and honest innocence. Probably best not to do a sermon on the aftermath of my debauchery.
“Thank you, Cara,” Elsie said, rolling her eyes at Phillip.
“You’re handling this like a Spartan, aren’t you?” he asked.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Dad’s dead, is what I mean. We’re sitting here wearing black and people are looking at us queer. Not a lick of it seems to stick to you, though. Just chin up and cracking wise—like always.” Due to the close quarters, Lip’s analysis was hardly above a whisper. Still, Elsie felt the bite.
“I’m away from Mama for twenty minutes and—is this going to be our lunch? If so, I’ll go invite myself to sit with the boys from the Thompson spread.”
Phillip turned around. Elsie wasn’t threatening idle. Thompson’s cowpunchers were indeed seated in the corner. “You’re not going over there,” he said, squaring back up to the table.
“Why not? I bet they’d enjoy my company.”
“I reckon they’d do more than that, if you open the barn door.”
A scowl like he’d never seen came across Elsie’s pretty face. Her dimpled chin was protruding as she bit down on what she wanted to say. Her eyebrows, darker than her golden hair, were crooked and bent in more than one direction. “I’m sorry,” Phillip said. His hands were in the air, a sign of apology and surrender. He really did regret his behavior. It was nice of her to check in on him. Nice to take him out to lunch. Heaven knew she had the same heap piled on her shoulders, the same list of what-to-do’s and wonderings. He stopped thinking of his damned thumping head and put his hands together, like offering a prayer. “I shouldn’t be acting like this.”
His gesture seemed to have a disarming effect. Elsie rolled her shoulders back and let the seat catch her petite frame. “You’ve got a lot on your mind,” she said, “more than just Pa.”
“That’s right,” Lip said, fiddling with a fork that looked like it was made before they started using the word antique. “But how’d you know, Seesee?”
“You were on about something the other day. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it…”
Phillip thought back through the last week. Was it possible that he’d blabbed his secret to someone who could understand? Was Elsie playing coy, just pretending that she didn’t know? Had the haze and crushing confusion caused some sort of fevered state of forgetfulness? Surely not. Even she wouldn’t be able to crack wise under the weight of what he was tottering under. Then again—she was a rare bird, his sister. “So we haven’t talked about it…”
“Not in any good order. But whatever it is, I can handle the reins. God, give me something else to think about.” She almost laughed then caught herself. Pining for diversions wasn’t proper public form. Elsie knew it, yet somehow she knew the desire to be inevitable. At least for her.
“I’m not your brother.”
She was still as stone. “I know that. We’ve talked about this—I mean—well, you know what I mean.”
“I’m not hitting the target.”
“Before Pop passed, he told me some things. Who my real parents were. How I ended up here at all.”
Elsie leaned forward and said, “Mama and Pa always said you were left on the steps of the church.” She took the fork from his hand and gripped his thick fingers lightly. “So this is what you were getting your mettle up to talk about the other day. Then you just faded off.”
“S’pose I did.”
“Well go on and finish, because I didn’t get the whole of it—whatever it is.”
“My parents were killed when I wasn’t much but a baby. Pa got to know the man who brought me. They kept in touch over the years. Said it was Loot Moreno.”
The din of dishes and conversation went away as Elsie’s eyes went narrow.
“I know what you’re gonna say,” Lip said, “but this came out a Pa’s mouth straight as Gospel.”
“But c’mon, Phillip. He was jabbering all manner of nonsenses in those last few days. Loot Moreno? He’s a make-believe monster. Heaven’s sake, they still tell stories about him around campfires to scare kids.”
Elsie wasn’t saying anything he hadn’t already run through, but he trusted her enough to go with the rest. “I might’ve just let it be…”
“But then I see the man yesterday—the one in the shootout. Call me crazy, but I think that’s Loot Moreno.”
“I’m calling you crazy,” Elsie said, “and how’d you come to this conclusion?”
“A couple things Pa said about him. His guns. And you didn’t see him. Unique, to say the least. Then his hand when they were dragging him away. It had a strange mark. A circle with two lines. I’ve heard about that mark.”
“Let me guess. From Pa.”
Phillip couldn’t help but smart from the incredulity. “No. But a few other places.”
Elsie had every reason to throw water on whatever his brain was cooking up. He was talking about myths and legends and the fevered last words of a dying man.
And his head was killing him.
And the man who raised him was gone forever. “Hey, Preach,” said Andy, Beckett French’s son, coming by in his trademark grease-stained apron to get their order. It was a strange thing to hear. That title was Ben Laird’s since the founding days of Thunder Hill. Someone had to be the first to say it. A rather inglorious passing of the torch. Elsie could see the awkwardness bubbling underneath Lip’s skin.
“Hi there, Andy,” Elsie said, smiling up at the waiter with her straight little teeth.
“That was a nice service yesterday. I’m sure gonna miss Ben. No finer fella around. Anything we can do, don’t hesitate. People are polite sometimes, but I really mean it. Glad you came in today.”
“Thanks, Andy,” Lip managed to say, “kind of you.”
“Y’all want to order?”
Yes, the young preacher thought. I want to eat and quit all the talking. There’d been enough back and forth for a week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches. He nodded for Elsie to go ahead with her order when Sydney barged in the café, ungraceful as ever. His backside and belly seemed to knick or downright slam into everything in its path. When he arrived at their table, Elsie stood up gasping. “Syd! What happened to your face?”
The clumsy deputy asked Andy if he could get him a chair and stood while his little sister looked him over and examined his wounds with her hands. Phillip was concerned as well, but he couldn’t help but think there goes lunch for another twenty minutes.
“What happened?” Lip asked, patting his unwieldy older sibling on the arm.
“That damn crossbreed but the boots to me is what happened. Took four of us to get him in the cell yesterday, even with the bullet wound in his leg.”
“But I saw you yesterday,” Elsie said, thinking he might need sewing up, “and you were fine.”
“This was from today. He near escaped on the way back from seeing the judge, clattering all of us with his irons. I’m telling you—that mutt bastard is a ruffian of the highest order. Devil’s spawn, I’m thinking. He’s a scary sumbitch is what I’m saying.”
Everyone in French’s was looking at their table now. Elsie and Lip might’ve been the elephant in the room, but now, with Sydney there, the Lairds were center stage with a spotlight beaming down.
Andy came back with a chair and Syd collapsed into it. He took a drink of Phillip’s water and left blood on the rim from his mouth. “What’s this fella’s name?” Elsie asked.
“Calhoun. Brandon Calhoun. Son of a damn gun, I think he broke something in my chest. I better get on and see Doc Rufus.”
Syd looked first at Lip and then to Elsie. It was an expectant face, that said help me up here, dammit.
Lip did the lifting and told his older brother to ask if he needed anything later on.
“Always with the courtesies,” Syd said, rubbing Phillip’s hair with a mixture of condescension and acceptance. “I’m off then.”
“Why didn’t you go straight through to Doc’s?” Lip asked, still lending a steadying hand.
“I was walking by and saw you through the window. Can’t a man talk to his family? Just wanted to check in’s all I’m saying.”
“You wanted to let Betsy Taylor get a look at you all rough and lawman’d up, didn’t you brother?” Elsie asked.
“Ain’t she working?” Sydney asked, suddenly a little more spry in his boots.
“Afraid we haven’t seen her,” Lip said. “Just little Cara and Andy working the tables.”
“Damn shame. She’s developing into quite a sight.”
“You’re incorrigible,” Elsie said.
“Pretty girl, all’s I’m trying to tell you. No sense hiding intentions under my hat.”
“There’s wisdom in that,” Lip said, sitting back down. His stomach felt like it had turned on itself. “Before you leave—that prisoner—you sure he’s giving you the right name?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t presume to do you fellas’ jobs, but that didn’t look like any Brandon Calhoun I’ve ever slapped eyes on. Assumed it was something a little more mysterious.”
“Nothing mysterious, Lip. Don’t go making it a big something. I know you’re mad that the peace was interrupted, but it won’t matter come four days from now.”
“I mean Brandon Calhoun’s gonna hang. Judge sentenced him this morning. That’s why I got this face. Figured on you doing the math.”
Elsie gave her goodbye as Sydney lumbered out of the café. Phillip wore a pensive look his sister could see right through and said, “It’s strange to agree with Sydney, but he’s right.”
“I don’t know, Seesee. The whole thing is off. And hanging…”
“You’ve got your principles. And I admire that,” Elsie said, again gripping Lip’s hand. “He did shoot down those Collier boys, though. There’s got to be justice in the world, hard as it is.”
The crushing headache was starting to dissipate, leaving space for confusion, doubt, and shame. Though Lip opposed the barbaric practice to its core, he wasn’t upset about hanging in general, as was most likely Elsie’s point. His apoplexy was specific. He needed some answers. Answers beyond the words of a dying man.
The young preacher raised his hand to flag down a server. He needed to see about finally getting some lunch.
Then, he needed to go to jail.
Chapter 4: Waiting For The Wanted
“You boys get down off the wagon now.” The man serving instructions was calm, hunched casually on his mount. His gray-bearded face was barely visible to the two men driving the stage. “Anyone inside, come out showing hands.”
“Who the hell are you supposed to be?” asked the fella riding shotgun. He was ill-groomed and short on teeth, as was the driver.
“I’m Fallstead. United States Deputy Marshal Fallstead, if you’re hard for credentials.”
“Seems to be a steep demand for someone all by his lonesome,” said the driver, spitting tobacco juice down his scraggly chin. “Why don’t you just get on out the way before we get angry.”
The wind kicked up some dust from the narrow road. The deputy marshal shielded his eyes by turning away from the stage. They couldn’t wrap their head around the lawman; out on his own, showing his back without any degree of caution. As they scratched at their spotty beards and tensed their muscles, he finally turned back and said, “How ‘bout you tell your boss to come on out that wagon. I need to wrap this up and get back to town.”
The driver and his companion exchanged bewildered looks and started in on busting their guts. The door to the wagon opened and a man in a three-piece suit stepped out. He was trimmed and tailored from head to toe. The tips of fingers glinted in the sun as he extended his hands outward. “What can I do for you, Marshal?”
“Needing to bring you in to town. Got a warrant signed by the judge in Boyd City.”
“You didn’t even ask who I was.”
“Don’t need to ask. Seen you before, Mr. Trill. You know—‘round.”
“I don’t recall meeting.”
“Never said we’d met.” Deputy Marshal Fallstead slowly lifted the brim of his hat and looked hard at all three men before him. “Y’all put down any weapons, and I’ll ride you into town. If there’s been a mistake, sure it’ll get worked out.”
“What’s the charge?”
“No charge. Suspicion of murder. Couple of folks that worked your ranch haven’t been heard from. Two negroes and a half-breed.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Don’t much care. Clear it up with the judge.” The lawman sighed audibly and said guns.
“You’ve got a hell of a lot of nerve coming out here. Don’t you have any cohorts?”
“I’ve got one cohort. Not necessary for you, though. One more time—guns. That goes for the slinger that’s still holed up in that wagon too. So we’re clear.”
“You must be about the most impetuous son of a bitch I’ve ever had the bad luck to meet,” Trill said, putting his hands on his hips. Fallstead looked at the ranch owner’s rig. Polished like new. Probably never been fired but to show off to some purchased piece of ass.
“OK then.” Fallstead showed no tells. Most men would tighten up or, at the very least, change their expression. Not so with the marshal. He reached across his body and pulled his pistol, killing the dirty man with the shotgun before he even knew the fight had begun. The driver was dead before his pal hit the dirt. Both headshots. Fancy Mr. Trill was struggling to pull, but he was pulling. Idiot. Fallstead winged him in both arms and once more in the shoulder. Trill looked like a puppet on a string, gyrating back and forth before falling to the road in shock and agony. He’d live. Maybe.
“You wanting me to let you reload?” The question came from inside the wagon.
“Nope,” Fallstead answered, holstering his pistol and finally getting down from his mount. “I saved the one.”
“You gonna shoot me before I get the chance to set my feet?”
“If you make me.”
“OK then.” The man inside came out the same door as Trill. He stepped over the moaning cattleman with his head held high, sporting a look of confidence.
The two had about fifteen yards between them, staring holes at each other through the smoke of the marshal’s spent cartridges.
“I see the resemblance,” Fallstead said.”
“I met your brother in Boyd City, Mr. Cade. That’s how I knew you were coming this way.”
The gunman’s face went crooked. “Not possible.”
“Picker’d never sell me out to a tin star.”
“He didn’t want to.” Through all the talking and shooting, the marshal’s face still hadn’t changed. Cade the gunman was put off—the “tin star” seemed lifeless. Plain old-fashioned bored.
“You trying to say you beat it out of him?”
Fallstead didn’t answer, but he took note of Cade, lowering his arms little by little.
“You trying to say he’s dead?”
Again, no answer.
Time and silence were enough for the gunslinger. He went for his right hip and came near to clearing the pistol from his holster before Fallstead’s final bullet blew a hole through the back of his head.
“Let’s get you up,” he said, walking calmly over and kicking Trill in his boot.
“You’re some kinda lunatic,” the ranch owner cried. He didn’t look so polished anymore. The only parts of him not covered with dirt were soaked through with blood. “You can’t just kill everyone.”
“You’re still alive,” the marshal said, stolid to the bone. “C’mon. I didn’t shoot you in the legs.”
Fallstead had a quick look at the scene and started shaking out his gun hand. Trill was still jabbering, but at this point the marshal had tuned him out. Despite a thousand cries and protestations, the wounded ranch owner found himself tied from his wrists to Fallstead’s saddle horn, running alongside the lawman’s horse as they made their way back to town. Every so often Trill would lose his footing and he’d find himself getting dragged and stomped by the horse’s hind legs. Mr. Trill’s piteous five miles back to Boyd City was as bad a journey as one would dare consider. By the time they arrived, he was parched all the way through. One of his shoulders had gone wayward and an ankle’d gotten broke. Not to mention the exhaustion. Not to mention the three bullet wounds.
Brad Utterly, Boyd City’s town sheriff, was sleeping in the jailhouse when Fallstead burst through the door. Trill was unconscious, slung over his shoulder. “Sheriff, get yourself roused,” the marshal said. Utterly was unmoved. Grumbling, the marshal set the prisoner down on the floor and kicked the sheriff’s chair hard enough to tip it over. The town’s leading arbiter of justice found himself waking up next to the dirt-ridden, bleeding body of Mr. Trill.
“Jesus Jupiter!” the sheriff said, popping to his feet, reaching for his gun out of instinct.
“Nope,” Fallstead said, flat and hard as a mesa top.
“Oh—hey there, Holt.”
“No need for weapons.”
“Course not. I—I didn’t even know you were there.”
“Normally you sleep on the job?”
“It’s been a long couple days, you know—with Trill and everything.”
Fallstead looked right through the poor excuse for a man. No wonder he’d been called in to apprehend Trill. Utterly was wholly unsuited for sentry duty, let alone rounding up wanted villains. “Well, there he is.”
Sheriff Utterly looked down at his feet. “Is he dead?”
“I reckon no, but if you don’t send for the sawbones, he’s gonna end up that way eventually.”
“Right,” Utterly whispered, running a hand through his tousled blond hair. “I’ll go get the doc.”
“First I get the money.”
“Oh yeah. S-sure. The money.”
Utterly went behind his desk and pulled an envelope from one of the top drawers, handing it to Fallstead like he was feeding a hungry lion.
“Obliged,” the marshal said, turning to leave.
“What about the rest of his people?” the sheriff asked. Trent and Saul, they weren’t angels, but them boys weren’t all bad.”
Fallstead turned back but said nothing.
“So they didn’t make it?”
The marshal waited a spell before answering. “No. Trent and Saul didn’t make it. They threatened an officer of the peace. Made their intentions clear.”
“Made their intentions… ok then. Just—” As that last searching word escaped his quivering lips, Utterly was cursing himself inside and out.
“Oh nuh-nuthing at all. Everything’s great. Really appreciate you coming and helping out the county.”
“If you’re thinking this might’n a been some sort of overreaching justice—”
“I didn’t say that!” Utterly whined. “I did not say that. At all, Marshal. You’ve done a fine job here. Above reproach. Beyond reproach. Irreproachable, as they say.”
“Good luck to you then,” Fallstead said, eager to free himself from the town lawman’s presence. It’d been a long ride to Boyd City and he’d had to kick up a good bit of dust in the matters relating to Mr. Trill and his gun thugs. Stepping out of the jail, he looked up and down the town’s main thoroughfare. Not much of a vista; Boyd City had but one passable hotel and a few other fledgling businesses. The lone cantina was in a sorry state, but Fallstead found himself headed there.
As he approached the marshal could hear the rumblings of a fracas. He walked up the crooked steps and positioned himself to the side, between the door and the cantina’s lonely little window. The situation inside was clearly boiling over, but he made no move for his gun. Fallstead took off his gloves and fished out a pouch of tobacco and some papers from his coat pocket, getting fixed to roll a cigarette. The marshal always took great care with his cigarettes, especially now that he was getting on in years. He limited himself to three a day and intended on enjoying the whole process, every time through. The goings-on in the cantina were pushed to the background; for the moment, Fallstead was solely focused on a good roll.
“You best come here and learn your place.” Inside the shabby establishment, a brutish, middle-aged man with a large purple birthmark on his right cheek was winding up tight as a spring. His ire and sexual frustrations were going the way of a pretty young woman standing at the bar. Whatever his will was, she clearly wasn’t inclined to bend to it. The lady took a quick shot of whisky and kept her body square to the dusty bar, seemingly unimpressed with the man’s coarse entreatment.
“Predictability is a powerful force,” she said, looking straight at the modest array of watered-down bottles behind the bartender.
“What’s that?” the man asked, full of bluster and malformed thoughts. Every second served to rile him more—he was stroking his mangy chin hairs with one hand and hiking up his saggy wool trousers with the other. “You’re the one looked at me, little girl.”
She smiled and tapped the top of her shot glass gently with her gloved middle finger. The barkeep poured her another and she threw it back with the same quick form as the first. Every man in the cantina had a head turned her way; she was wild-haired, blond and brown streaks flowing and colliding down the halfway of her back. She wasn’t tall, but her portions were presentable in all the right places—made more inviting by her vestments. She wore leather britches that clung tight to her skin, square-tipped rustler boots and a thin flannel shirt tucked in tight and unbuttoned low enough to show offer more than a trifling tease of her breasts. A picky man might find fault with her shoulders—they were rugged for a lady—then again, she presented as something more than just some lady. “I looked at you because you’re about the ugliest son of a bitch I’ve seen in a spell. What’s your name, specimen?”
“Tim. And you’re fixin’ to be sorry for taking that tone. Thinking I might give you a good ride before I cut you up.” Full of confidence, he gave the room a round look of sinister satisfaction before returning his attention back to the girl.
He took a step in her direction but she didn’t move. Her seeming lack of fear stalled his approach. He licked his lips and played some more with his whiskers, eyeing her backside. The other men in the room stepped back and exchanged looks of worry and wonder. They all knew getting in Tim’s way was a dicey proposition when his blood was on the rise.
“So you’re thinking,” she said, still looking ahead. “That’s a dangerous line to take—considering your obvious lack of funds upstairs.”
“Enough!” he roared, lunging forward wildly. She quickly ducked under and took several short steps away from the bar. Tim crashed over two rickety stools and into the drunk that’d been previously stationed to her right. As he turned and regained his bearings, he was staring at his prey. This time, she had a pistol drawn, steady at the hip.
“You gonna kill me, missy?” Tim asked, stumbling away from the bar in her direction.
She drew back the hammer with her thumb. “Stop there or I’ll be obliged to shoot your pecker right off.”
Tim stopped his advances and looked around the room. He saw familiar images all around—images more than faces, the way one does after too much time inside a bottle.
“Take it easy, ma’am.” The raspy suggestion came from the darkest corner of the cantina, ahead and to the left of where she was standing with her gun. “Tim, you back off. She don’t look like she’s messing about.”
“Stay on out of this, Jared,” Tim said, refusing to look off the girl.
“Can’t do it, pard. We need to be getting back. Mr. Trill’s expected.”
“I reckon you’re gonna be disappointed,” she said, looking at the second man out the corner of her eye.
“What’s that mean?” he asked, sounding genuine in his interest. She kept her attention on Tim and snuck another glance at his companion—they were opposites in disposition and appearance—as he stepped from the corner she could see he was slender and in possession of a handsome face.
“Boss Trill’s either dead or locked up, is what I mean,” she said, dispassionately and demonstrably returning her pistol to its holster.
“That’s not possible,” replied the dapper gent. The other patrons continued to part to the few peripheries the little joint provided. Outside, Fallstead was down to about a quarter of his cigarette. The girl saw the smoke drifting into the cantina but had her attention jerked back.
“I’ll show you what’s possible,” Tim said, losing the last of whatever cool he was keeping. He reached for his gun but she was far too quick; as promised, she fired a 45 caliber slug into his privates. As the blood started spraying, the patrons and bartender ducked and dove in random directions, disoriented by the volume of the gunfire. The only one not stumbling about was the handsome man—poor Tim’s compatriot.
“Jesus,” he said, moving over to check on his wounded friend. “Who the hell are you?”
“Oh yeah. Apologies. Name’s Sybille.” She took two steps back toward the entrance to make certain no one could flank or sneak up on her.
“You—duurty—” Tim cried, holding his wound and trembling. He repeated the slur over and over until it was barely audible.
“Don’t bother,” Sybille said, addressing Tim’s friend. “He’ll bleed out in a minute or two.”
A few breathy insults later, Tim went silent. His friend closed the brute’s eyes with bloody hands and stood up seething.
“And so ends the life of Tim. Not the brightest star in the sky. How about you?”
“What about me?”
“Just that I noticed you pulling the hammer back on your sidearm when you knelt down. You looking for vengeance?”
“Wouldn’t be fair. You’ve already drawn.”
“I can remedy that,” she said, darting her eyes around the smoky room. “As long as everyone in this hole makes it clear they witnessed a fair fight.”
Nothing but a few indiscernible mumbles.
“I’ll take that as affirmation.” Sybille slowly slipped her revolver back in its place.
“I don’t want this,” Tim’s friend said.
“Okay. Expected as much from the associate of a man threatin’ rape. From a man who works for a no good murdering son of a bitch.”
“Enough’s the right word. You’re played out, mister. No job, no friends, no backbone.” She let her gun hand dangle and let out a long breath. “Guess I’ll be seeing you boys.”
Sybille turned and walked out to the street without looking back. Heading to the hitching post, she heard a gunshot and the thud of a man falling behind her. Calmly adjusting her saddle, she said, “Guess that’s all of ‘em.”
Marshal Fallstead’s deliberate steps followed up behind her. “Are you trying to get killed?”
“I knew you were out here smoking. What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is I don’t want you getting killed at playing some game. It’s damn stupid, Sybie.”
“I’m sorry, Pa,” she said, turning from the horse to give Fallstead a kiss on his graying cheek. “It’s better when you shoot them, though. Your badge makes the witnesses less prone to revising their stories.” A kiss on his other cheek. The marshal smirked and ran his hand gently through her wild hair. Despite the soft spot his daughter was exploiting, a degree of irritation never fled his countenance.
“Trill’s in jail,” he muttered, noticing a few of the Boyd City townsfolk walking up to learn what consequences the shooting had produced.
“The rest?” Sybille asked. She looked up and saw a faraway thought behind her father’s thin green eyes. It was all the answer she’d need. “It’s for the best. Not like you killed a wagon train a nuns.”
Fallstead walked back to the fresh body still leaking on the cantina porch. Sybille could tell he was more cross than usual, but she wasn’t worried; she had some good news in the offing. After grabbing her curved straw hat from her saddle horn, the young girl went around her horse and bent over. She took out her pistol and drew a circle in the dirt with two lines, looking over to make sure Fallstead wasn’t watching. After saying a few words under her breath, she pushed her way through the growing group of onlookers to reconnect with her father. “Any problems?” she asked.
Fallstead looked expectedly at Brad Utterly. The sheriff was standing over the body with his hands on his hips. “No,” the lawman said, “I suppose there ain’t.”
“That’s good to hear,” Sybille said, pushing civilians out of the way to get close to her father. “You run a real tight outfit, Utterly.”
“Sorry, Sheriff. Excuse me one sec. Dad, can I get a word?”
“What is it?”
Sybille nodded him away from the crowd, close to the window where the deputy marshal had watched his daughter getting into trouble. “I’ve got some news. Before you showed, I overheard some boys talking. Three or four counties over, there’s gonna be a hanging in a few days.”
Fallstead looked down at his firecracker daughter and started groping around for his tobacco. “I’m gonna smoke another.”
“You made me shoot more people than I planned on today. Don’t go heavin’ judgments.”
“Fine. So anyhow, one of these boys works in the telegraph office. He was telling the other fella—”
“Who’s the other fella?”
“I—it doesn’t matter. The other fella ain’t a factor in the telling.”
“Go on girl.”
Sybille propped her hat up to make sure her dad could tell there was no fooling about in her eyes. “The telegraph man said the hanging’s over in Thunder Hill. Some shootout or some such. Man shot down two or three men in the street. Took a bullet himself.”
“Waiting for the interesting bit.”
“There was a description of the man that went to local lawmen and even some across the territories, in case the guy was wanted on anything else. Guess he seemed the type. Anyway, I listened to the telegraph man’s description. Sounds like a gent I’ve heard tell about.”
“No.” Fallstead’s answer was strident; he hadn’t caught up to the information just laid at his feet.
“Description fit. People are talking like it could actually be the damn legend himself.”
“People talk nonsense. Didn’t think your ears were inclined towards hearing it.”
As he started to walk away, Sybille said, “Has a mark on the top of his hand. You need me to describe it?”
Fallstead stopped and lit up the cigarette he had in waiting. “It doesn’t—he’s dead. Everyone said he was dead.”
With all that had taken place, Sybille was still light on her feet. She slapped her father on the shoulder like she was fixing to mount up. “Yeah. But they said the same thing about you, Papa.”
Chapter Five: Dodge City
“If y’all are needing anything else, let me know. Don’t you hesitate on account of—just don’t hesitate. I’ll be praying hard on it.”
“You’re a goodly lad Lip,” Mrs. Bristol cried, Kentish accent even heavier than usual. “And I’m sorry we missed yur father’s wake.”
“Don’t say that. With all you’re going through.”
They were standing over the bed of the struggling Mr. Bristol. Doc Rufus was kneeling over the old man as he tried to speak through his agony. A brutal cough and fever had taken hold of the shop owner and had him nearing death’s door. Rufus set a cold cloth on the patient’s forehead and whispered that he’d be back to check on him in a bit. As he fastened up his medical bag and walked by Lip, he offered a look that said nothing to be done.
Lip’s heart sank as Mrs. Bristol grabbed his hand. He thought highly of the Bristols; they were inveterately English in their manners and bearing, but somehow suited to hard frontier life. They’d lost their children in their days as young adults and decided to start afresh across the Atlantic. Theirs was a successful shop—one of the first to find home in Thunder Hill. Lip put an arm around the portly, red-faced Mrs. Bristol and gave her a gentle squeeze. The old lady seemed to curl up inside his ample embrace.
“Come here then lad,” Mr. Bristol moaned. Finally the cough let up enough to allow him an audible thought. Lip took his shaking hand and sat down next to the bed. He could feel the heat coming off the sick man’s body. “Had—a—good innings,” he said, sputtering his way through the syllables.
“Don’t be talking that way, Mr. Bristol. Could be you still got acres of work here on this plane. Rest up and do what Doc Rufus says.”
The old man coughed and nodded. Lip took a spare cloth from the bedside and wiped away the spit running down the wrinkles. His pain was manifestly dreadful. Phillip hated this part of his calling. The Lord’s work felt more work than Lord sometimes. “I’ll be back to look in on you both. Get some rest now.” After patting the fragile Mr. Bristol on the shoulder and giving his dutiful wife one more tender hug, he walked out of the bedroom. He found Rufus waiting with his arms crossed waiting by the front door.
“Talk with me a minute?” the doctor asked.
“Of course,” Lip said, walking out into the waning light of dusk. His visit with the Bristol’s had not been brief. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, per se.”
“Per se? Please Elias. Just tell me what’s needling.”
“Worried about you, is all. I spy you huffing and puffing your way out of the café. Darting across the thoroughfare, no doubt on some crusade. Question is, what type of crusade?”
“I’m not on a crusade. And I know you’re mocking my faith. That close-mindedness melodrama—is that a prerequisite for all our conversations? Could mask it a little better, at least.”
“Then there’s the drinking. I might not be the best medical practitioner this side of the Mississippi—it’s debatable—but I can certainly tell and smell when someone’s been down the whisky hole. How’s your head?”
“Better,” Lip said, smiling with a charming, embarrassed look on his face. “But seriously, why’d you rush me over here?”
“Did you happen to slap eyes on the dying man in there? It’s your job. You send the rubes off packing with a smile, I try to keep them on the mortal coil.”
“Mr. Bristol is a long way from his last breath.”
“Shall we trade professions outright, then?”
“Where did you think I was going, Elias?”
The doctor seemed to look everywhere but into Phillip’s eyes. His own were darting wildly. It was uncharacteristic. Rufus was usually deliberate and relaxed in speech and action. “No idea what you’re jabbering about. It’s been a hard time, I know—perhaps the notion struck me—you getting back to your job.”
“By placing me around the prospect of looming death? We buried my father yesterday.”
“That’s actually not a terrible point,” Doc Rufus conceded, scratching the flat top of his hat. “It’s possible—I was a little off the target with my intentions. Salubrious as they were in spirit.”
“Hope you’re treating everybody else in town with the same deft skill. We’ll all live forever.”
“You’ve got a lot more cheek than your father, young Laird.”
“Yeah, well. Might be that we had a lot less in common than you’d imagine.”
The doctor bent his eyebrows and played unsurely with his mustache, obviously put off by the boy’s last statement.
“I’ll spare you from another rejoinder, Doc. Seems you’re not quite yourself at present. Best be off to check on my family.”
Phillip offered a hearty handshake and hug. It was returned in kind, like the two hadn’t spent the last few minutes lashing each other with verbal barbs.
“Give your mother my best,” Rufus said with a wry smile, pulling out his flask and walking in the direction of his house.
He can’t help himself, Lip thought, taking the opposite direction. He took a route through the narrow alley between the Bristol’s shop and the newspaper office which opened up back onto Thunder Hill’s Main Street. Save the saloon, activity in the town was beginning to ebb as folks made their way home for supper. Phillip found a few moments of relative peace, concerned as he was with the Bristols and the odd behavior of Doc Rufus. Casually walking along the boardwalk, he passed by the clanging commotion of the saloon without looking in. Though a part of him wanted to belly up and spend the night getting drunk, he dismissed the thought as quick as it came. The town’s sole preacher couldn’t be seen assenting to too many fleshly habits.
Stepping off the boardwalk, he heard a coarse voice coming at him from the door of the saloon. “Hey, Lip! C’mon over here!”
Phillip squinted his eyes and spotted one of Thompson’s hands that’d been lunching in French’s earlier that day. “Hey there,” Lip said, straightening up his back. “It’s Valentine, right?”
“You know damn well it is, church boy.” Valentine seemed convinced that this was the pinnacle of all insults. He laughed hysterically and put on a show of swagger as three more of his associates tumbled through the saloon doors like cars from a derailed train. Each man looked sweaty and wound-up from hours of typical day-off carousing.
“I’ll be seeing you gents. Bless you now,” Lip said, sensing no good from more conversation.
“Hold on there,” Valentine said, “I ain’t done talkin’ to ya.”
“Probably because you’re yet to say a dang thing.” Rufus was right; Lip did have more cheek than his father.
A cacophony of mockery and slander went Valentine’s way via the mouths of his buddies. They were having quite a laugh, the way followers do when their leader is knocked a peg.
“I’m sorry,” Lip said, sensing that he’d caused more damaged pride than he’d intended. “Gonna go home, see my family.”
“Your sister there? I might myself come a callin’.”
“Yeah, she’s a pretty piece.” One of the others was chiming in, shorter and even less presentable than Val. “I think we should all get a taste before we head back to the stead. What u thinking, boys?”
“This here is real dumb,” Phillip said, rolling up the sleeves of his black shirt. What was he doing? Wearing mourning garb and getting into scraps all the same? He was emotionally and spiritually at sea, and worst, he knew it. “Come on, then. Let’s get it over with.”
As they dropped off the end of the boardwalk, little puffs of dust sprang up from the concussion of their boots. Each man fanned out in a slightly different direction, creating a semicircle around Lip. Laird didn’t see any guns and didn’t suspect there’d be any; Joey the bartender was a bruiser and intractably consistent in confiscating all firearms once his patrons were sufficiently soused. These boys had definitely hit that mark.
“Don’t worry, Preach,” Val said, fists clenching. “After we beat your ass down, we’ll take care of your sister real good. Your mama too. She’s gotta be getting lonely by now.”
Lip had tussled and roughhoused all his life, no different than any other boy trying to find his place, but this was the first time he felt propelled by proper malice. Without a word he took two hefty steps forward and slammed his fist into Valentine’s mouth. A few crooked teeth went sailing. Val was felled like a tree that’d been begging for someone to come along with an ax. A part of Lip felt like Israel at Jericho, watching the walls tumble into ruin.
The three remaining cattle hands were stunned at first. So was Phillip. His first non-biblical coherent thought was one of concern. “Sorry,” he said, putting his hands out. Bending over the downed Valentine, he tried to summon him back to consciousness.
It was all too confusing for the others. From Lip’s left a boot found a way to his ribs. From the right a fist cracked him across the jaw. The pain was blinding until the short mouthy one came over with a empty whisky bottle and smashed it over his forehead. For a few seconds he felt nothing, careening between the present and the darkness.
Then they really started in—kicking the stuffing out of him as he rolled around next to the sleeping Val in hapless defense.
When it looked like the three drunks would never part from their beating, two shots rang out. A scrawny man of some years stood just away from the fracas, pointing his smoking pistol in the group’s general direction. “I—I think it’s time—hell, I know—that boy down there’s had his fill. Jesus H—what’s the matter with you vagabonds?”
“Who the hell ur you?” the short one asked, mucus dripping from his cracked lips.
“I don’t think that’s relevant.”
“You’re the one not relevant, dude.”
“That’s—rather clever, I suppose. My name is Jasper Bedford. Not from here.” The old man tried to straighten his saggy frame and cocked his pistol nervously. “I implore you gentlemen. The young man has benefited from whatever lesson you meant to teach. Pick up your friend and find respite elsewhere.”
A crowd of around thirty people was now watching the scene from a distance. The previous day’s shooting had the citizens of Thunder Hill curious but skittish, wanting to know the situation but not wanting to engage. The questions and grumbles were fairly uniform throughout the gathering.
It’s got to be the boys from the Thompson place. Stirring up trouble’s common as breathing for those fools.
Who’s the old fella with the gun? Didn’t he come in town the other day? What’s he still doing here?
Is that Lip down there in the dirt? What in God’s name is he doing getting mixed up in such foolery? Shame on him.
Where’s Cox? Sheriff, ain’t he? What are we paying him for? This town is starin’ to look like Dodge City.
It seemed like the prevailing stalemate might fall apart between the old man and the three brutes, but Cox came riding his big spotted horse down the street to quell the situation. He fired a few warning shots in the air with his oily Winchester while holding the reins between the thumb and pointer finger of his non-trigger hand.
The weathered lawman pulled up his mount behind Jasper Bedford and threw a leg over his saddle, sliding off the horse smoothly. His rifle was pointed with stiff purpose at the short man standing over Lip.
“Shut the hell up, Stevie. Damn drunken buffoon.”
“One more word and I’ll plug you, swear to God. Pulling this. Like I don’t have enough on my plate.” The sheriff chambered a round in the Winchester. The big barrel was about twenty feet from the three men, more than close enough to put fear in their drunken heads.
“Out of the way! Let me go!” The screams were coming from the end of the boardwalk. A few concerned folks were tugging on Lindy Samuel’s arms as she finally escaped their grasp and rushed in to see to the semi-conscience Lip.
Cox was standing beside Jasper Bedford, just a few feet away. He told the old newsman to holster his weapon. Bedford did as commanded immediately and without question. The last thing the sheriff needed was a young lady getting tangled up in some damn fool mess. “You boys run on. They’ll be nothing more on the matter if you do.”
“Not even to sleep it off. You start running back to the Thompson spread right now, and you have my word.”
The three looked down at Val and Lip, then at each other. A kernel of sense was finding its way into their heads.
“The deal ends in five seconds. Start running.” Cox pulled the rifle butt tight to his armpit. He was bluffing, but he couldn’t let them know that. Not with Val and Lip bleeding in the dirt. Not with Miss Lindy mixed in.
“Let’s get,” Stevie said, running crooked down a side street and into the prairie that let to the Thompson’s. Cox let out a deep, silent sigh. He told the crowd to get back to their business and rolled a pair of annoyed eyes at Jasper. The newspaper man let his shoulders sink in embarrassment and cleared himself from the scene, allowing his slight frame to be overtaken by the still burgeoning group of spectators.
“Go get Doc Rufus,” Cox said roundly, figuring someone would take up the task. He bent down and started slapping Valentine lightly on the face. “You really gave him a walloping, son,” he said, lowering his eyebrows at Lip. The two young men were almost on top of each other, faces covered in blood and clothes made brown by the dusty road. Lindy Samuels was close to coming apart, holding Phillip’s head in her lap. Over and over she kept kissing the boy on top of his head, repeating something the sheriff couldn’t quite make out. Cox didn’t know what her involvement was about, but he sensed a big whiff of trouble somewhere down the line.
As Val finally came around, Doc Rufus arrived. Cox exchanged a loaded look with his old friend and stood up to give him room. The sheriff stood off to the side, watching the crowd from a good remove. Mabel and Elsie Laird had just rushed on the scene. Mother and sister wore very different expressions; Mabel was concerned and motherly, asking her loopy son questions. Elsie wasn’t asking anything. Her generally welcoming eyes were fixed and hard—admonishing at best, condemning at worst. Trouble somewhere down the line, the lawman thought again.
Rufus ordered everyone back. He was clearly irritated and had already put in a long day with the Bristols. “Lindy, Mabel, get on back,” he barked, whisky on his breath. “Boy,” the doctor said, pressing lightly on Lip’s sides, “does it hurt bad to breathe?”
“I’m sorry,” the young preacher said. “Is Val okay?”
Rufus took Lip’s hand and pulled him up to a sitting position. He checked his arms and hands for any breaks. “Val’s fine. His smile’s been permanently altered, but I’m not discounting the possibility of an improvement.”
“I’m sorry,” Phillip repeated.
“Enough with the mantra, kid. Save the apologies. The rubes are gonna be restless, having a amateur pugilist for their holy man.”
The remark almost made Lip laugh. He asked for help getting to his feet. His rugged body was battered, but he’d recover. The worst was his hand; Val’s face turned out to be hard as granite. He shook it out and patted Rufus on the back, telling him thanks.
“My pleasure,” said the physician. “A real exclamation mark to the day.”
“Later on—you need to cough up why you were keeping me from the jail today.”
The doctor fiddled with his gray hat and checked his pocket watch, doing a bad job of feigning indifference. Lip caught a glance between Rufus and Cox. The sheriff clutched his rifle and looked off down the road. “Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rufus said. “You’re still a little punch drunk maybe—not making sense.” The doctor was nervous to the point of being incoherent. For a man as settled in himself as Rufus, it made the aberrant behavior all the more strange.
“I’m sure you don’t.”
“Better set your mind somewhere else. That’d be my advice.” The physician held out his hands and waved them around, clearly indicating he was talking about the town and everyone in it.
“Owe you my thanks, Sheriff,” Lip said, walking toward the crowd and his mother. She started to wipe the leftover blood from his face, but he stopped her. “Don’t go ruining your fancy garments.”
“You could always ask Lindy for a swath,” Elsie said. She was standing next to Mabel, arms crossed indignantly. “Seems she’s more than happy to lay down her vestments at your altar.”
“Elsie, I’m sorry.” Lip was singing the same song—a song nobody wanted to hear. Sorry for being a house built on sand, everyone. Sorry for taking up on the sly with a betrothed woman, Elsie. Apologies for scuffling with the dregs and miscreants that I’m supposed to be ministering to, God.
Phillip couldn’t stand looking at Val, still prostrate in the dirt. Lindy was casting a Gorgon-like stare in his direction. The mutterings and whispered bits of gossip from the onlookers were ants on his skin. He just wanted to get away and wash it all off. He kissed his mother on the forehead and told her that he was going home for the day. I want to go with you, make sure you’re okay, she said. I’m fine, just a few scrapes and bruises, he answered, lying straight to her loving face.
Lowering his head, he walked slowly through the crowd and across the road, heading gingerly toward his place above Grimes General Store. No one would bother him there. His mother was the only one in town maintaining unflappable support, and she’d be turning in after an hour or so, early as always. He’d knock on Mr. Grimes’ door and procure a bottle of whisky and some bandages to wrap up his sore ribs. Change his shirt and wait for night to come in earnest. Banged up or not, he still had things to do.
Chapter Six: Mr. Calhoun/Mr. Moreno
“You hungry there, jailbird?”
“Fine, Calhoun. I wasn’t getting you anything no how. Just be a waste, considering where yur a headin’.” Deputy Carlson Booker threw his feet up on the sheriff’s desk, wiggling his toes inside a pair of silver-tipped boots. Booker was fastidious about his appearance; he wore a black suede hat along with a gray silk vest and tailored black pants made from the finest wool a fella could order from the catalogues. He leaned back in the desk chair, chewing on a toothpick. The prisoner sat heavy and hunched on the bed of the cell farthest from the entrance. There was no partition or privacy. The Thunder Hill Sheriff’s Office and Jail was essentially one large room. A few old desks, a gun rack on the wall opposite the door, and the two cells. The ceiling was unreasonably low. The prisoner couldn’t have stood up straight if he wanted to.
“When’s Cox going to be back?”
“I ain’t his keeper. What’s it to you anyhow, Calhoun?”
“You bother me.”
“Well I’m sorry,” the deputy said, drawing out his words for a full helping of condescension. “Maybe should’ve thought about that before you plugged those two youngsters. The Colliers were friends of mine.”
“I should’ve smacked you harder then,” the prisoner said. Deputy Booker snarled and rubbed the bandage on his nose.
“You won’t be throwing slanders when you’re burning up for eternity.”
“Slanders. Ain’t that when something’s not true?”
“That’s right, jailbird,” Booker said.
“Well I might’ve shot down those bastards, but no slander figured in the transaction. Youngsters. Them youngsters were going gray in their beards. Thirty at least, both of ‘em.”
“Murder’s murder. Reckon the sight of the noose will take away some of that bluster.”
“Murder my hide!” Calhoun roared, stomping the floor. The force of it literally shook the building. The bolts holding the bars together rattled.
The sudden outburst caused Booker to swallow his toothpick. “Ahh—dammit,” he said, trying to cough it back up.
“Only way that’s coming out is from the other end,” Calhoun said, taking a small degree of pleasure in Booker’s new affliction.
As the deputy continued to hack away in stabbing pain, Cox entered. “What the hell is this?” he asked, watching his subordinate grab at his throat like an actor portraying a poisoning.
“You’ve got some real good men here,” Calhoun said.
Sheriff Cox shoved Booker’s fancy boots off his desk and told him to get out. “Come back tomorrow with your head on straight,” he said, shoving the gagging deputy through the door and locking it behind. A minute or two passed—Cox shook his head as he stowed his rifle and hung up his long coat and hat. He then started rummaging through the desk drawers.
“It’s in the bottom left. Under some papers,” the prisoner said.
Cox lifted some old wanted notices and sure enough found what he was looking for. “Thanks Loot,” he said, taking down a health dose from an old whisky bottle. “You want some?”
“Be obliged. Talking to that kid of yours has me reminiscing on my years of seclusion in a favorable light.”
Cox laughed as he walked the bottle over the short distance to the cell. He stuck the bottle through the bars and Loot stood up to receive the gesture, making sure to keep his head tucked down and most of his weight off his wounded right leg.
“What was all the ruckus? Somebody out there shooting, no doubt.”
“There was some shooting, sure enough. Your buddy.”
“The old newspaper guy. Jasper Bedford.”
Moreno almost spit up his whisky. “You’re fooling.”
Cox shook his head and took the bottle back. “Nope. And if that’s not strange, the shooting was on account of him stepping in to help the boy Phillip Laird.”
Moreno’s dusky face was full of confusion. “The kid’s okay though, right? And Jasper?”
“Everything is fine. I think the boy’s a little at odds with himself. Blood’s up and the like. Lost control with some of the town yokels. Out of the ordinary, but not completely surprising, death of a parent and all.”
“Well, you know what I mean,” Cox said, turning a tinge red in the face. The sheriff was good enough at orders and straight talk, but nibbling around the edges was a skill he’d never refined.
Moreno returned to his bed. It sank under the weight of his bulky frame.
Two knocks on the door. “It’s Rufus. Let me in, Amos. I need to check on the prisoner’s wound.”
Cox got up and opened the door. “No need to put on airs, Doc. It’s just us in here.”
Rufus touched his top hat and walked in, holding the lapels of his long black suit jacket. “How you doing, Loot?”
“I’ve been worse.”
“Sorry to hear that,” the doctor said, smiling.
“What’s the kid doing—getting into some scrap I hear?”
“Nothing to worry about. The honorable Cox stormed the battlements and quelled any escalations.”
“I didn’t do much. Battlements? How much you been drinking, Doc?”
“There may be another problem,” Rufus said, ignoring Cox’s inquiry, knowing the familiar lawman wouldn’t fuss over an answer.
Moreno stood back up and grabbed the bars. “Tell us, Doc.”
“Phillip was heading over here earlier today. I more or less diverted him, but he’s kicking at the sleeping dog.”
“How could he know?” Cox asked. “What could he know?”
“It doesn’t matter,” the doctor said. “Another day of rest for that leg and you’ll make your miraculous escape.”
Cox nodded and put his hands in his pockets, pacing around the little space. It was a right mess he was in, but he wasn’t about to let an old friend hang for defending himself against the Collier brothers. According to every honest set of eyes at the scene, the drunken troublemakers had forced Loot’s actions, drawing down and cornering him outside the bar. Despite that, the judge was quick to sentence him to the gallows—the magistrate was a crooked old bastard—all he could see was a big mixed-breed from out of town and two dead sons of a local rich man. Case closed.
“So damn dumb, me coming here,” Moreno said. “Think it best to just let me swing. Everyone in this room knows it’s been a long time coming.”
“That’s not a situation I’m comfortable living with. Besides,” Rufus said, you’ve done penance a hundred times over.” The well-dressed physician walked over and put a hand through the cell, patting Loot on his burly shoulder. “Hell, it’d be wasted work, the number of times I’ve patched you up. I can’t see you in the noose.”
“Me neither,” Cox said, standing resolutely in the center of the room. He agreed that Loot shouldn’t have come, but Ben Laird’s death had thrown everybody’s senses astray. “You don’t hang. That’s not how this works.”
“Gentlemen.” Lip was standing in the open doorway. Rufus had forgotten to lock it back up. The three older men were frozen in place, as if playing possum could get them out of what was next. “Mr. Calhoun,” Laird said, “excuse me—Mr. Moreno. It’s nice to meet you.” Lip closed the door deliberately, keeping his actions and movements minimal, like drawing out a moment at the pulpit to add tension.
“How much did you hear?” Cox sputtered.
“Pretty much everything you’ve said since Doc came in.”
Lip pulled out a flask from his back pocket and motioned it at the sheriff’s bottle. “I’m not intruding, am I?”
“You know damn well you are,” Rufus said. “And that’s about all you know. I advise caution here, son. You reversing course might serve all parties. Before things get beyond control.”
Phillip took a drink to keep from scoffing. His ribs felt like they were being stuck with hot pincers. “I’d prefer you not call me son, Rufus. That word doesn’t seem so appropriate, aimed in my direction.”
Moreno, Rufus and Cox were equally at a loss. “Ben told me the truth… before he passed on. Some of it, anyhow. Been meaning to confirm the story, but dang if it hasn’t been an eventful couple of days.” A few renegade tears streamed down Phillip’s face. He wiped them away with the inside of his shirt sleeve and took another drink. “I’ll be needin’ some more filling in on the backstory, but first—how’s this jailbreak gonna work?”
After the scuffle in the street, Elsie Laird went back home and had herself a cry, not that she’d ever be admitting to it. The house was quiet as she cleared the table of a half-eaten meal; Elsie and her mother had been in the middle of a decent little roast left by some parishioners when one of the boys came by to report Phillip’s latest travail.
Following their return, her mother gave her a hug and said that she was going to lay down. That left Elsie to fetch water, clean up, and get the fires and stove properly stoked for a frigid night. Summer was beginning to loosen its grip in earnest.
“It’s coming. He left me, and it’s coming.” Elsie shrieked something fierce and almost burned her hand, turning around to see Mabel. Her mother looked natural in a way that was startling. Her blonde hair fell randomly past her shoulders. She was wearing her nightclothes with an old homespun blanket wrapped around her chest. “It’s coming. He left me, and it’s coming,” she repeated. Little bits of light were coming from the lantern and the stove. More crept in from the big room in the front and the office that led out to the back porch. Mostly though, it was dark. And a little frightening. Elsie didn’t know why she was shrinking so—she’d lived there for most of her twenty years. Not a nook or cranny she couldn’t well negotiate in darkness or light. But the sight of her mother up and about this late, so far past being presentable—it was unnerving on more than one level.
“It’s because he’s not here,” Mabel said.
Elsie wasn’t sure what her mother was talking about. At least not in a way that she could understand. She could feel it, though. Something to do with Dad. That calming presence, forged by a million losses and millions of prayers and starts and stops. The present moment was exposing Elsie—she wasn’t the intrepid autonomous woman projected to everyone in town. That personality was luxury—a luxury afforded by the stalwart presence of her father and steadfast love of her mother. Now half of that was gone. Strange how losing half could make a person all the way empty.
“Can I get you something Momma? It’s late for coffee but—”
“Fetch that bottle of whisky from the top cabinet. Let’s hope your brothers haven’t staked the entire claim.”
“Yes ma’am,” Elsie said, smiling a little as her mother took a careful seat at the kitchen table. She was moving slowly, like the last few weeks had taken away years. The daughter figured it would pass. Hoped maybe, more than figured.
With two cups poured and the bottle between them, Elsie asked, “What’d you mean? What’s coming? What did he leave you with?”
Mabel took a drink and lingered over the taste. Her propensity toward spirits was stronger than she was likely to concede—Ben had teased her on enough occasions to realize teasing was a bad idea. She didn’t indulge often and always had enough sense to know when to put the cork back in. Tonight, though, she wasn’t sure her footing was firm. Wasn’t sure she cared, either. “I’m mostly rambling, Seesee. Rambling around the house one room to another, rambling around in my head one thought to another.”
“I feel the same way. But there’s more to it than that.” Elsie didn’t want to push too far or retreat too easy. She took a sip of whisky and waited.
Finally, Mabel answered her daughter. “I can’t tell you exact. But when your dad passed, holes got left exposed. This town—this county—he was sort of an anchor. There were things. Things he did for people.”
“I know that,” Elsie said. “Of course I know that. He was the best man in the world. Girls always say that about their dads, guessing, but I mean it.”
“I know you do. But—you’re too clever to think girls always say that about their fathers.” Mabel smiled enough to show she wasn’t all sadness. “Wouldn’t catch me saying that about your grandpa. Man was a stump in a tended field. Never had a place and took it out on everyone in his path.”
“And said. And said again. Suppose I’ve become a curmudgeon, or suppose I never wasn’t one. What say you on that matter?”
“I think both my parents are exemplars. Paragons. The bar that all else is measured by.”
The widow sighed dismissively. “With all you and Phillip’s fancy schooling, sometimes I get jealous. You sort of run off the track with those words till I can’t keep pace.”
“Sure you can. And do. Stubborn in admitting it is all.”
Elsie finished her cup and gave herself a generous refill. Mabel didn’t even notice. The social graces and proprieties of days ago were being overlooked. Perhaps for the short run, Elsie thought. Or perhaps everything had splintered off. Irrevocably changed. What was on her mind—she figured it was either the best time or the worst time to bring it up. “Mamma?”
“What’s bothering you, Seesee?”
“I know my daughter’s mind better than she thinks I do.”
“I’m not sure on the wisdom of letting out this particular horse. You may never speak to me again.”
“Ahh. So that then.”
“What do you mean that then?”
“You’ve been in love with him since y’all could speak proper.”
The word proper wasn’t emphasized, but it’s the one that stuck in Elsie’s mind. Her fair cheeks turned ruddy, obvious even in the low yellow light.
“Don’t get skittish. There’s nothing wrong with it. Some ways, nothing could be more right.”
“I’m not sure,” Elsie said, reaching across the worn wood of the tabletop to clutch her mother’s hand. “He’s my brother.”
“He completely is,” Mabel said, rubbing the smooth tops of her daughter’s fingers. “And he completely isn’t. Something that you’re able to reconcile or not.”
“God, I’m such an idiot,” Elsie said, tapping her forehead on the table. “This whole time I thought I was keeping this grand and awful secret—it was news to you like the sun rises in the east.”
“It’ll be a little more complicated. But women and men throwing themselves together is always complicated.” Mabel wrapped the blanket tighter around her body as a cool draft slithered a way through the kitchen. Her daughter was lovely and clever and still very young; a beautiful and sometimes perilous combination. Still, there was no sense getting riled over something that at its heart was good. Not with all the darkness out there in the world and no Ben to help her face it. “You’ve always gotten on, you and Lip. There’s no denying it,” Mabel continued, somewhat surprised by her advocacy. “In a way, Sydney never quite found his place in this family. Less a Laird than Phillip.” She looked flush into her daughter’s eyes for the first time in the conversation. “But those few years Syd has on you—they were tough years. I think they did something to his soul. The outside world can seep in—find a way of manipulating a child’s constitution from their young days to their last.”
A stronger draft followed Mabel’s statement. The lantern on the edge of the table flickered. Mother and daughter heard the front door close sharply and heavy footsteps coming closer.
“I saw the lights on.” The sound of Phillip’s voice put Mabel at ease and Elsie on edge, but there was something right about him being there with them in the kitchen of the family house. Especially now.
“That right?” Elsie said, keeping her face from the full light of the lantern. She didn’t want her face to betray the fact she’d been crying not ten minutes previous.
“What’s going on, son?” Mabel asked, “scuffling and getting into trouble. It’s not you. Never has been.”
“I’ll be right back, Mother,” Phillip said, walking resolutely up the stairs. Mabel and Elsie looked up at the ceiling, listening to a series of thumps and scratches. A few more sips of whisky and he was back in the kitchen, holding a little paper book in his hand.
“And how can you say that with any certainty?” Lip asked Mabel.
“What’s that supposed to mean? I’m your mother.”
“Oh of course you are. And you’re not. And we never talk about it, or maybe we have, once or twice throughout the course of my whole life. I’m to be grateful and that’s the beginning and end of it.” Phillip was sweating. Sore in body and spirit. He seemed to be dragging his whole perforated essence around town, one location to the next. “And of course I’m grateful. But it’s going to eat away at my soul until I get the whole story. I’ll start with this,” he said, holding up an old dime novel with an amateurish illustration titled, The Three-In-One Gang. “I’d almost forgotten I had a secret stash of these things hidden in my room upstairs. Rubbish, admittedly. Violence and tall tales. But that seems akin to what I’ve been told about my past.”
“What you’re getting after is—don’t chew raw with me, boy. I’m your mother.”
Lip stood over the table and surveyed Elsie and Mabel, letting his thoughts stack up on each other as neatly as could be arranged after the day he’d had. Being hung over, dodging lady callers, tending to the Bristols, brawling in the streets—more drinking—and his latest episode at the jail—the young man was beyond his natural limits. The situation in front of him would require delicacy; a lightness that could only really come from strength. Were he wise, he might understand. But he was barely a man. A sort of noble desire for the truth was tangled up with a selfish duty to himself.
“What is that?” Elsie asked, pointing to the wrinkled little book.
“Just some stories. But turns out one of the main characters is in the jail down there. Met him myself ‘bout ten minutes ago.” Lip leaned closer to his mother. “Funny thing, seems there’s a whole team that already knows him. Betting Mom’s a member.”
Mabel’s head was down. Elsie stood up and slapped Phillip—whatever his problem, he had no right to take a nasty tone with the woman that had raised them. “What’s wrong with you?” she blared. “What is this about, Lip?”
“Not again,” Elsie said, moving over to put an arm around her mother. “It’s as if you’ve taken too many hits—more likely it’s just the drinking. I thought you were a better person.”
“I just met him over at the jail. Mr. Calhoun is Loot Moreno of legend and lore.”
“Get out. And stop bothering Mama.”
“I’m just trying to talk to Mama. You’re not on my side. You’re only about what you want, Elsie.”
“Completely strayed from the reservation, Lip. I can’t even step to your lead.”
“You’re wanting more from me than I got. Sorry, Seesee, but it may never be there. God knows I love you, but all—all everything—it’s crazy.”
“Stop talking. C’mon, Mama.”
“It’s Loot Moreno,” Mabel whispered, clutching her daughter’s arm. “He’s right. It’s coming. And he left me.”
Phillip knelt down and tried to get his capture his mother’s focus. She stared without a goal. Too much whisky and grief. Maybe too many lies. The thought came and left Phillip’s consciousness in a second’s time. Mother wasn’t nefarious. More was going on—fragile things. He could see it in the matriarch’s glazed expression. It wouldn’t do him any good to go stomping around the garden. Enough was enough for one night. “I’m sorry, Mama. We can talk about this later.”
“Come here,” she said, letting go of Elsie to hold out her arms. Lip fell into her embrace. My beautiful boy, she said. My beautiful baby boy. Found on a church. God’s sweetness ever since.
Phillip stood up and received a kiss on his forehead from Mabel. She told them both goodnight and gently made her way to bed. Elsie looked up at Lip and asked, “Now what was that?”
“Take my word as a preacher. That was someone letting a burden off their chest. A piece of one, anyhow.”
“Loot Moreno,” Elsie said. Now she was the wearing the glaze over her eyes. “It doesn’t make any sense. If he’s real—then he’s the killer. Unless you’re saying just the bad parts of him were a legend.”
Lip held up the little paperback and hit it against his head. “Mom’s weary. Nobody at the jail was much for talking. I was shooed from their gathering like a wayward chicken, but it’s not going to be so easy. I’ve got intentions to see the guy who wrote this.”
Elsie looked hard through the dim and read the author’s name. Jasper Bedford. “Who’s Jasper Bedford?”
“Nice old guy we met at the café today.”
“That guy wrote the book you’re holding?”
“There’s a lot of shit going on.” Lip took big breath. “Sorry for the language, but it’s been something of a long one.”
“I’d say. Hard to reckon on how those feet are still holding you up. Beat to a pulp is the phrase that comes to mind… maybe you should get Lindy Samuels to nurse you back to health.”
Lip scowled but held his tongue, dragging his battered body toward the front door. Sydney was standing there, hands his hips, having just entered. He looked like a substitute gatekeeper, disheveled but hell bent on standing his ground. “Where you going in such a huff, youngster?”
“Did you know?” Phillip asked. “They forgot to mention it at the jail—whether you were involved.”
“What are we talking about?” Syd said, donning a weird smile that was more than a little irritating. “Dude, you need to get it together. Whole town’s talking. Leave the roughhousing to the men, Lip. Word of advice.”
“Don’t bother, Sydney,” Elise said, walking into the room, arms crossed. “Lip knows best. Always has.”
“Ah, both of you can shut your traps. I’m beat up and sick a—”
Sydney sunk a fist flush against Lip’s already injured ribs. He fell to his knees, gasping. Another punch. Syd’s heavy right smack on his jaw. “You want another one of them or are you done mouthing off?”
“You better apologize to your sister. Do some praying for forgiveness while you’re down there, do you some good. By God. What would Dad say, Phillip?”
The question hurt more than the punches. Sydney rarely landed anything square, be it a word or a punch. Tonight he was filling up the bull’s eye.
Lip held up his hands, coughing on the pain. “I’m sorry. But honestly, did you know they were bustin’ him out of jail?”
“I know who he is, Sydney.” Lip gathered himself back on his feet but couldn’t quite stand straight. It put him at eye level with Syd.
“No idea what you’re talking about. Sounds like nonsense. Man’s gonna hang. I sent out the telegram to the surrounding counties and everything.”
“Because that’s what we normally do when there’s ‘bout to be a hanging. In case he’s suspected of crimes anywhere else.”
Oh no. “Did you tell Cox about the telegram?”
“What the hell difference does it matter about the telegram? No, I didn’t tell him, but he’s been busy.”
“What’d it say?”
“Description. Name. The day of the hanging.”
“Description,” Lip said, “did it include that mark on his hand?”
“Sure. Be strange leaving it out. Didn’t write a poem though. They charge by the letter with them telegrams.”
Oh no. Lip brushed by his brother and staggered toward the saloon. He had to find Jasper Bedford. Had to tell Cox and the others about that telegram. It could mean trouble. More than likely meant trouble. Had to keep going.
It wasn’t to be. The cumulative effect of getting the tar kicked out of him—the drinking and nonstop pace of the day—those final two punches—it all climbed on Laird’s back at once. He tripped on a rock in the road and hit the dirt. The young man was asleep almost instantly after impact. Phillip’s long day had come to a dirty and ignominious end.
Chapter Eight: Word Getting About
“You seen my brother this morning?” Sydney Laird asked, clapping his hands to get Deputy Booker’s attention. Carlson was in his normal state, overdressed and underprepared, nodding off with his feet on the jailhouse desk.
“Who’s there?” Booker asked, coming to and groggily grabbing at his hip. If not for the Sheriff Cox’s Hang Up Your Guns policy, he might’ve woke up by shooting off his own leg.
“Sheriff’s gonna whoop yur ass again,” Syd said, looking at the prisoner. Moreno was standing stiff as board with both hands on the bars, starting straight back at him. It wasn’t a threatening glare, but there was something in it that Laird couldn’t put his finger on. Sydney told “Brandon Calhoun” to stop gawking at him funny, then directed his attention back to Booker. “Well? Have you seen Lip?”
“Is he not at home?” The question came from the doorway. Sheriff Cox was stepping in, having made his morning walk around town.
“No sir,” Sydney said, “but it’s not for you to be bothering about.”
“Personal matter then,” Cox grunted, hanging up his duster and his hat. He kept his pistol on. The guns policy didn’t apply to the man in charge.
“Right. Personal matter. Anything kicking up out there?”
“All’s quiet,” Cox said. “Hopefully it’ll remain so. I could use a little bit a normal for one day.”
“How’s it coming with that scaffolding?” Deputy Booker asked. He was on his feet, trying to assert himself by throwing a verbal jab at the man behind bars. “They better make it extra sturdy for this go-rilla? Thing’s liable to come tumbling down before it gets the chance to snap his go-rilla neck.”
“You made the same joke yesterday, CB,” Cox said, wiping off his desk chair before finally sitting. Booker had that effect; like everywhere he was went was a little dirtier for it.
“Hey in the jail!” The voice was loud and clear, followed by two knocks on the door.
“Who’s there?” Sydney hollered back.
“It’s Patrick Hudson. I know Sheriff Cox. He in there?”
Cox stood up and told Sydney to open up the door. “C’mon on in, Patrick,” said the sheriff, shaking the broad-shouldered newcomer’s sturdy hand. It was dirty and blistered, but the man showed no feeling of pain.
“Good to see you, Amos,” Hudson said, removing his hat. It was made of dark fine leather and had a good curve to it, though looked like it’d recently been through the wars.
“You two head out and ride the valley,” Cox said, nodding at his deputies. Make sure everybody’s safe and happy. Try not to get yourself killed.”
“Reconnoitering the range,” Booker muttered.
“Reconnoitering the range,” echoed Sydney. The deputies gathered their gear and made a quick exit, nodding at Cox and his acquaintance.
“Seems like you’ve got the troops in lockstep,” Hudson said, smiling warmly. He was one of the only black businessman to make it in the valley. A special tolerance for assholes and general winning ways seemed to do the trick. His was a successful outfit, honest and fair as any Cox knew of.
“If that’s how it looks then I hope you keep the memory close. I ain’t holding my breath for repeat performances. What brings you, Patrick? How’s the freight business?”
“It’s good enough,” said Hudson, wiping sweat from his forehead. “Me and my men was gonna pass straight through this morning, but a wheel went real bad. Had to pull in full stop and have your smith take a look.”
“What’d he say?”
“Says I’m held up for the day. Be tomorrow morning at the earliest before we can venture out.”
“That old man ain’t much for manners, but he knows his trade. Reckon it’s a sturdy appraisal—he’s the sort that hates everyone the same, color not figuring in like it does with some.” Cox hated having to say it, but Thunder Hill was no more perfect than the rest of the world.
“I got that sense,” Hudson said. “Hopefully we can get some rooms squared away for tonight. I hate having to go idle, but when fate says stop, no sense bucking.”
“I’ll do what I can for an old friend.” Cox put a hand on Hudson’s shoulder. They’d known each other for years, meeting on one random occasion or another. The sheriff never found the man to be anything but pleasant. His bearing was dignified, even now, having just yanked a broken wagon for miles over rough terrain.
“I appreciate it, Amos. Heck, it’s good to see you. Almost takes the edge off of my travails.” Mr. Hudson smiled and shook the sheriff’s hand one more time, overdoing it the way people do when there’s mutual admiration. The freighter took a quick peek over Cox’s shoulder at Moreno. “Mind if we step just outside the jail for a second?” Hudson asked.
“Course,” Cox said, holding out his hand.
With the sun on their faces Hudson asked, “When’s that hanging happening? I’d like to have my crew out of here by the time the proceedings are underway.”
Sheriff Cox didn’t answer right off. Just crossed his arms and gave a curious sort of glow. “Hoping to have the matter done and dusted by tomorrow at noon.”
“Okay. I’ll throw a few extra coins at your smith, try to get us out of here way ahead of it.”
“Uh-huh,” Cox said, still more than a little confused.
“It’s just I got some men on my crew that are on the younger side—really, no more than boys. Not sure I want them seeing that kind of thing. Lord knows if we’re still around, they’ll be insistent. Most these tads are all the way green.”
“Being a little protective?” Cox asked. He was starting to see Hudson’s angle and had no reason to quarrel with it. Still, the man was acting a little strange.
“My son’s on the crew, Amos. A good boy, sixteen, but he’s never had view of the things we had to endure. Maybe I mother him a little too much since she passed, but I’d like to keep him innocent as long as possible. Probably sounds dumb, but there it is.”
His son. Now it makes more sense. “Ain’t for me to tell a man the rights and wrongs for raising up their own.”
“You’ve always been a fair man, Amos. Tough and fair.”
“Don’t know about all that,” Cox said, spitting and looking at his boots. “So you saw the gallows coming in, I reckon. I hate those things, myself. Always did give me a chill—big reminder that someone’s about to get sent up. Building it right in front of where people do business and get about their lives—one of the stranger institutions we got.”
“Oh,” Hudson said, “have they got the scaffolding built already?”
“It’s getti—how the hell else would you know about it? The hanging?”
“We heard about it last night, on the road from Briggs Creek. Couple of riders said people were talking about it in the saloon.”
“Briggs Creek? How the hell are they talking about it there? That’s twenty miles away in good weather.”
“More like twenty-two,” Hudson said. He knew his distances. His business depended on it.
“Somebody sent it out on the goddamn wire. Probably word’s around from here to Timbuktu.”
“I assumed so. Another reason I had for pushing through. This kind of thing attracts a morbid bunch. The queer pull that a dying man has… folks are starved for entertainment out here, suppose. Or maybe that’s the way it’s always been. Every time I think people are finding some basic decency, something like this happens and yanks me back to cold realities.”
“Son of a bitch,” Cox growled. He hadn’t heard a jot of Hudson’s last rumination. “I got to go, Patrick.”
“What’s wrong. Anything I can do?”
“Nah. I’m just needing to pistol-whip one of my deputies.”
“Okay, then. G-good seeing you, Amos.”