About Paying Respects
Almost the Fall: A Novel (Working Title)
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. He was alive. 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 a direction. The other three were more than enough—West being most important.
Like so many of the wasted might’ve wanted, he went.
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. They had 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. 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 most beautiful of ways. The stream ran lively in the background while he held his tongue for a response.
“I’m supposing you want me chasing you down,” 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.”
He turned and used a dirty finger to push up the brim of his hat.
“What’s strange?” she asked, deciding to give 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 though 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 to guess.”
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. “You’re always making light of things, Nell.”
“Takes a lot of work.”
“Does it?” he asked, kissing her other cheek.
“Indeed it does.” 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 reckoned I was stuck with.”
“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, son.” 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 nothing overly dramatic. 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 far away 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. Take Joely with you.” 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 there.” He held up his hands and smiled warmly. “Apologies for barging up so 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 and all.” Clayton turned back and stuck the barrel of his pistol into John’s hand wound. A ponderous expression found home on his face. “That’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 pain. “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. “You’re 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 three 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 were trailing. Second, the hand bore a strange tattoo from the top of the wrist to the knuckles.
A tattoo of a circle with three horizontal lines.
“There is but one thing we can seek with a mind toward what matters. One thing that matters, 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 young ladies of the town tried not to be captured by 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 good as the Pastor was, this was no ordinary service. A body lay still in the house next to the church—the body of the man that had 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; therefore the usual din of a working town continued steady on, outside the church walls.
“Ben built this house of God 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 hollerin’. 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 couple 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 the man. 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 was something that needed leaning on.
They didn’t know what he knew. 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 wayward older brother, looking wrong for his surroundings as always, one of three 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 faith.”
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’d 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 and flowers underneath the windows. Not the biggest place in town, but it was immaculately looked after by Mabel and Elsie. It was as white as the church that it sat next to, at Mother’s insistence. She said if God got to have a white house, so should she. Like most things mentioned sideways by a woman, his 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 hair gray as tinsel sat hunched on a little stool by the body. “Doc Rufus,” Phillip said. The three syllables cut through the whole house, powerful and unwavering. The young man couldn’t bear to speak softly. He feared in his guts that any cracks or delicacies might turn him to a puddle on the floor.
“You do your part, Lip?” Rufus asked.
“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. 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 perspective. They were looking down at the doctor’s closest friend: Ben Laird 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 a breach of good manners. “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 absense 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 eyes sharpened toward Phillip and then relaxed again. “Are the rubes coming in?”
“You can hear ‘em 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 come by 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—that can be traced back to an almost incalculable lack of experience.”
Before Phillip could muster a response, the door swung open and Mabel walked in, 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 tip of his old gray 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 body 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, Phillip 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.”
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 delicate little hand. She did a little curtsy that gave off a hint 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.
More and more piled in. Scuffing up his mother’s rug and filling 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.
Three gunshots sliced their way through his thoughts. Everyone turned toward the noise instinctively. Sydney 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 ‘em all here if you can. I’m going to go what that’s all about.”
He didn’t wait for a response. Quickly he was out the backdoor and around the front of the house, running heavy through thick mud of the town’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. Another man he didn’t recognize was leaning against the hitching post in front of the saloon, bleeding from a wounded leg. Sheriff Cox, Syd, and three others were training their pistols at the hobbled man, yelling in agitation. Phillip skidded to a stop on the periphery of the fracas. “Everybody calm down,” he said, raising his arms. “He’s shot.”
“Stay out of this, Lip,” Cox said, walking slowly toward the man. “Back away! All of you!”
Phillip did what he was told, 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 this. Today, of all the damn days.
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.
He had his repeater aimed at a point that anyone sticking to the trail would have to cross. His calloused trigger-finger was at the ready when he heard a weary voice call out, “Loot! You up there!?”
His finger relaxed and 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 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 unimpeachable as always, my friend.”
“Get on down now. Come inside and I’ll get you some coffee. Look like you might freeze to death.”
“Thank you. I think my horse might be getting old. It took a ghastly spell to get up here.”
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 dreadful. I really enjoy this horse.”
“You’re strange. Even for a 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 affair, heated by a cast-iron pot-belly stove. Transporting it up the steep hill had 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 had 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 dearth of hair. Still, Bedford had soft brown eyes and a permanent slumping of the shoulders. It was as if the words I’m at your service dictated his posture. Most people that met the old 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.”
Jasper’s sunken pale cheeks turned red, regretting what he’d just said and what was still on the docket. “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 about the dang thing.”
“Of course. Anyways, 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. 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 before him: Loot Moreno was as formidable in appearance as any person he’d ever set eyes on. 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 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. It’s something Jasper found endlessly fascinating. 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.
“That’s a damn shame,” Moreno said, setting down a shaky tin cup of coffee in front of his guest. “Preach 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.”
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 gonna head to the funeral.”
“Well, I knew the man. 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.”
“What do you mean?” Jasper asked. He rubbed at his thin salt and pepper mustache as it quivered from nerves. Moreno’s voice could be low and forceful, sounding like it was powered by a locomotive engine.
“Thunder Hill’s a long ride. A day past Fort Callaway, if you’re really about your business.”
“We’ve got three days until the service. They’re holding off 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; 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 itchin’ 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 conveying 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.