All that summer so far there had been no real hint of precipitation, just drought, flame, and the ash it left behind, cut with intermittent rumors of blood falling from the air.
As the place he’d started off from fell further behind, in every new township that Sheriff Jenkins added to his hastily drafted map of the surrounding territories, he found men and women who prayed for rain ever more desperately, berating first the Injuns who no longer occupied their lands, then whatever strangers were unlucky enough to wander by, then God and the Devil in turn, before finally turning—only at the last—on themselves.
Storm’s coming, he’d tell them, once he’d done enough to grab their attention—then find himself constrained to add, after they inevitably greeted such a prediction with hopeful pleasure: No, not that sort, sad to say; what it’s bringin’ is something you in no wise want, let alone him who brings it. Which is why you need to look to your sins and own your secret guilts right now, folks, this very instant, ‘fore the curse of self-deception all but assures the bulk of you end up the way we did, back home....
They cursed him for a false prophet, mostly, and tried to run him off. Sometimes it came to blows, or even bullets, while other times he got off with a few harsh words, weathering them stone-faced, same as the horse-apples they chucked after him. In the end, it was enough to’ve given his speech, Jenkins reckoned; they were warned now, if nothing else, no matter what-all they might yet choose to do (or not do) with that same grim intelligence. And that least—the very least, sparse as it might be—was, frankly, the best he could probably aspire to do, given the circumstances.
Those were the good days. Bad days were when he made a sweep elsewhere, spanning as many compass-directions as he might around his target’s last legitimate stopping-point, and found nothing but ruin: homesteads denuded, gore-soaked not from affray but from above, as though some wounded behemoth had floated overhead spraying grue every-which-way; graves exploded outwards and empty. All the now sadly predictable detritus, roster of attendant destruction tabled ever-upwards, with no apparent sort of end—easy, or otherwise—in sight.
For this was the trail of Sartain Stannard Reese which Jenkins followed, as he had since what was left of the man had passed through his own home, sowing similar awfulness in his wake. Sartain Reese, known as “One-Shot”, with his Bushwhacker locks and his odd-angled pale eyes; Reese, who had ridden with Bartram Haugh in Lincoln and elsewhere, leaving enough far more natural devastation behind them both to sow broadsheets emblazoned with their inked images from here back to Missouri.
Reese, who Jenkins’s predecessor Sheriff Marten had failed to prevent his citizenry-flock from hanging off their single still-viable tree, only to see him come striding back up Main Street a night and a day later, trousers stiff with dirt and piss, to demand the guns Haugh had once gifted him with as a seal on their marriage of sorts—Satan-approved and God-decried, just like in Sodom-town of old—before shooting Reese straight through the heart, treacherously self-loving as always, and leaving him in the desert to die.
That other Sheriff was gone from this world for sure, now; Jenkins had seen full proof of it, more than enough, before prying the man’s tin star free and taking on that charge. But as for Reese, driven hither and yon to do what Jenkins could only assume was God’s judgment on every other blooded creature in his way, while truly seeking retribution on one faithless companion only... though he certainly bore his fair share of a corpse’s qualities, Jenkins somewhat suspected that one could neither call Reese dead nor alive, at this very moment, and hope to be entirely correct in the verdict. He was a revenant, a harbinger, and where his steps took him blood followed, literally—down from the heavens first, then back up from the earth borne on a tide of hungry ghosts; a fatal crop seeded and brought to sudden bloom by Reese’s own execution.
Whose blood was that you had on you, Reese? He remembered asking as they’d sat together in the jailhouse, recalling the sticky red coat Reese had worn on first entrance, before the doctor had cleaned him up enough for Marten to place his face. To which Reese replied, not even looking up, apparently too tired by far to bother being properly sociable: Oh, somebody from round here’s, I expect. Didn’t you recognize it?
Because, as Reese went on to point out—you and yours seem good people, on the whole, from what I’ve seen. But there’s always a reason I run across places, and you have been unlucky, so might be that’s ‘cause there’s other people here, ones that’s just like me.
I’d know, if there was, Jenkins had maintained, steadfast-foolish, not knowing any better. And Reese had simply laughed, torn mouth bleeding enough to paint his lips, before asking: Would you? How, exactly....
(...excepting the Word of God?)
For himself, Jenkins had listened mightily hard for that Word these many weeks since, both daily and nightly, catching not the barest syllable of a reply. Indeed, he almost began to feel that all his former prayers had been in vain, seeing how the only true miracles he’d ever witnessed were of Reese’s pitch-black variety.
Yet still he came on, ever farther from the vales he’d known, plagued by heat and thirst, sore in both heart and belly; he stopped only to rest, to pick stones from his horse’s hooves and then walk a while, for what else was he to do? Someone had to warn them Reese was coming, giving them at least that slightest of chances in the face of impartial and awful justice, this sanguine Second Deluge. To protect the guilty from their guilt, the sinners from their sins, the weak from the consequence of their own weaknesses...
...thus doing, apparently, what the same absent Lord which Jenkins had been raised to praise no longer cared to.
The next “town” Jenkins reached, by nightfall, was so small it hadn’t found itself a name yet: No farms as such, no real homesteads, just a combined whistle-stop and trading post which specialized in whatever the last transaction’d left behind. The fellow manning it was of origins so indeterminate it almost seemed a puzzle set for unwary travelers by a vaguely amused and un-benign Nature. He was dressed in badly-cured hides which haloed him with stench and currently deep engaged in cleaning one of a brace of lizards for immediate jerkyfication.
Jenkins introduced himself, while the counter-tender regarded him with disinterested distrust, slopping lizard-guts up over his shirt-cuffs. He allowed as how he was hoping to meet up with a specific local someone, if possible, a concept the man either didn’t appear to’ve ever heard of, or saw to little to approve in.
“Willicks, that was the name they gave me, back at Shortfall. Said he’s your Marshal, or close enough.”
“But you wouldn’t know him to look at, I’m takin’ it. Or where-all he might best be found at.”
“’Cause I’ve been traveling a piece, sir, and when I told my story up Shortfall way, they said Fred Willicks was him I should make my case to, in these parts....”
“Uh,” the man behind the counter put in, with some force, like he maybe meant to follow it up with more—but didn’t. Jenkins stood there a long moment, waiting for elaboration before sighing and touching his hat.
Then he turned, only to be confronted by another man entirely, abruptly conjured from nothing: Cat-footed and far more elegant in his motions than his clothes’ drab cut would suggest, a luxuriant beard blurring his face, one hand on his gun-butt and the other shading his eyes, themselves hazel with just a light touch of rain-grey.
“Poor Mahershalalhashbaz here’s only got half a tongue to work with, sir, thanks to bad Injuns, and that cut sideways,” the man—whose lapel, Jenkins now saw, bore a tin star as well—told him, gaze held steady. “Makes him tough to put questions to, let alone get any useful answers from. But you’re in luck nonetheless, turns out: Fred Willicks is my name, as it happens. Which makes you?”
“Clarke Jenkins, Mister Willicks. I’m... well, I was from Esther, before. Not that there’s much left there now.”
“Which wouldn’t make you much of a Sheriff at all, then, given you lack a town to watch over.”
Jenkins shrugged, hands held carefully wide and empty, letting his full body allow as how when considered that-a-way, Willicks might have himself a point.
“You want my star, I’ll gladly hand it over,” he said, “’long as you do me the honor of listening to what I’ve got to say.”
Willicks contemplated this. “Hell,” he said, at last, “it can wait ’til I’ve heard out the latter to decide on the former, surely; my wife does like to entertain, not that she gets much cause for it. I’ll tell her to set one place more.”
Jenkins felt himself start to relax, as Willicks said it—where he was from, men didn’t invite one another to guest if they planned on doing ‘em ill, after. But then again, One-Shot Reese had been a guest too, in a way, and the “good” people of Jenkins’s home had swung him from a tree; bad manners at best, even if not quite worthy of what’d followed, at least under non-Divine law....
I do need food, though, he thought. And rest.
So: “Lead on,” he told Willicks, allowing his lips to shape what was probably a singularly unconvincing smile, considering how long he’d fallen out of the habit. To which Willicks merely raised a brow, and did.
Where Willicks lived, it turned out, was up above the area’s sole wilting tree-line, in a cabin that was ramshackle without but snug-made within. His Missus was young, pink-pricked and crumpled like a late rose, with every part of her swelled up tight in anticipation of a second child; their first was a spry little boy of perhaps three years, changeable-eyed like Willicks yet cheerful-industrious as his dam, without even a hint of his father’s hidden depths. The meal was salt pork, beans and a slab of flat-bread, which Jenkins—who hadn’t eaten well in almost a week—set to with grateful pleasure.
After, with the boy dispatched to bed, Jenkins leaned close to Willicks by the fire and told his tale, in quiet measured tones. Willicks listened without comment, up ’til almost the end.
“This ‘companion’ Reese spoke of,” he began, then. “This man Haugh....”
“Bartram Haugh, yes, sir. Bewelcome’s chief architect.”
“They were in it together, shoulder to shoulder, is what I heard.”
“Maybe so,” Jenkins allowed. “I only have what Reese told me to go on, after all. And his testimony’s—suspect, at best.”
Willicks sat back, sighing. “Well, any rate. You’ve been tracking Reese a while now: what is it you think he’s after, exactly?”
“You’ve already named him, Mister Willicks,” Jenkins replied. “Was Haugh who set this off, far as I can figure—Reese bears the mark of proof right over his heart, or rather through it. He won’t stop ’til he finds this false ‘friend’ of his, and visits the same judgment on Haugh for breaking their... pact as he has on every Haugh-less place he’s sojourned in thus far.”
“Then if you really want to stop him, Sheriff, it’d seem you’re going in the wrong direction entirely. Following Reese won’t help, or even hinder—it’s Haugh you need.”
Such a simple conclusion! The second Willicks let it drop, Jenkins saw his own errors at once laid bare, hideous in their utter inaccuracy. It was a slap to the face that set his ears ringing so, he barely heard what the man said next. “Sorry, again?”
“Do you know where this-all happened—the original shooting?”
“Not as such. But....” Rummaging in a waistcoat pocket, Jenkins withdrew the map he’d annotated, its modifications all shaky lead-pencil scribblings done mostly by firelight. “Here,” he said, pointing; “this came before Esther, by near a month, or so them that was left told me—found it on my initial sweep, when I was still bothering to go backwards, having no clear impression which way Reese might’ve left town by after the storm. Granted, there’s no assurance this was where he reached first, after whatever happened between ‘em... happened, but—”
“—it’s a good enough place to start.” Willicks nodded, gaze immediately drawn to where his wife sat quiet, to all appearances deep-engaged with her knitting, though her own eyes skipped hither and yon whenever she seemed to think they weren’t looking. “How long a ride, you figure?”
Jenkins made calculation. “Ten days’ hard slog, justabout. I’ve been moving slower myself, but that’s on account of fanning to cover the most ground and knowin’ what I tracked went on foot; go straight and we’ll get there quick as weather allows, if the horses don’t wear out.”
Later still, as he sat dozing by the fire, heaped with rugs, Jenkins listened to Willicks cozying the Missus around. Given the few words she’d let drop at table, the two of ‘em had met by correspondence with her an old maid already (though she hardly looked it) and Willicks well aware that his choice of job made for slim feminine pickings, entering into alliance long-distance with little hope of much more than mutual compromise. Yet by what he’d witnessed, their gamble seemed to have paid off, in spades. He hated to part such a meeting of true minds, ‘specially with Willicks’s wife in her gravid state and no doctor handy. So he’d all but made his mind up to beg off by morning, only to have Missus W. herself shake her head no at him, adamant—hair high-piled yet sleek, brown as Willicks’s own, with only a thread here and there of silver.
“I knew what Fred took on before I met him, Sheriff,” she said, packing both their bags with tucker. “Sacrifice is sweet to my Lord, so the Good Book says; if Jeptha gave his own daughter over for righteousness’s sake, who am I to retain my man, when similarly called upon?”
“You’re a strong woman, Missus.”
“It’s God’s strength only, Sheriff, as all true strength is. And I’ll look to see you later, both of you, when this charge of yours is fulfilled.”
Jenkins tipped his hat to her prediction, sending up a brief sketch of a prayer himself—perhaps useful, perhaps not, depending on who might be listening—that the next few days wouldn’t disprove it.
What might’ve been Reese’s first foothold out the grave had already been mostly dead when Jenkins surveyed it, those months past. Now it was entirely empty, broken like eggshell, a slack rind of itself sucked dry and left open to the wind; dust and weeds had made the streets their home, sand blowing in through shattered shop-windows and doors left careless-open in its few surviving residents’ headlong scramble to vacate the premises, to eddy ‘cross the floors in an aimless devils’ dance.
Jenkins slipped down and went to tether his horse, expecting Willicks to follow him. But the Marshal-by-self-election stayed obdurately mounted, hands slipping to hips as he swung his head, eyeing the place up and down. “Where-all’d they hang this One-Shot Reese of yours, exactly?” he inquired. “Don’t see any trees handy....”
Jenkins wracked his brain. “Uh... from the saloon’s roof-tree, if I recall a’right. Had to haul him up with five volunteers pulling, then wait for him to go slack before the doc had the town smith jerk on his legs a few times, make sure his neck was good and broke.”
“He must’ve complained though, surely, when he realized what they had in mind as regards his ending—raved some, or cursed, or both. Maybe tried to turn tail, to flee? For it’s a truly heartbreaking sight, when the gallows you’re being drawn to is made by amateurs.”
“No,” Jenkins said, not thinking to wonder how Willicks came by this particular intelligence. “I don’t think so; never heard Sartain Reese to’ve acted the coward, neither behind a gun or in front of one. They told me they found him stone, mostly, right up to the drop... same as in every other place.”
He had his back to Willicks now, still looking up at the building in question, head cocked in memory. Which is why he couldn’t know exactly what might’ve accompanied the little sigh Willicks gave in answer, be it shrug or grimace, contempt or sorrow—an admixture of both, perhaps, those hazel eyes taking on a momentary shine. Yet he did hear the sound of iron clearing leather, if too late, half-turning on the hammer’s cock, so the bullet took him not neatly in the spine (as must’ve been Willicks’s intention) but messily in the side, punching through and through with such force it spun him to fall at his own mount’s hooves. The pain was ferocious, so bad he could barely breathe, let alone speak; he lay there looking up, and saw his traveling companion—
(friend, my dearest)
(never thought to see you here, sergeant)
—slip from the saddle at last, graceful as sin, to stand there reloading, unhurriedly, with the sun behind him dimming his face to a merest silhouette: Pleasant, well-spoken Fred Willicks simply all at once gone, his wife’s joy and his young son’s pride extinguished, with nothing left behind but a ruthless, calculating liar, thief, and murderer—candle-snuffed as though he’d never existed, though Jenkins could only assume he had, at least up ’til this son-of-a-bitch had played much the same trick on him.
“That does sound like him,” the man who’d taken Willicks’s place at some point admitted, clicking onto the spent chamber to reload it, before spinning the replenished cylinder with a showman’s flair. “For Sartain’s a gentleman first and foremost, you see, immured through long tradition with the idea of striking honor’s pose under even the severest sort of duress—to stand fast and take your medicine, setting an example for the rest, no matter how fools around you rage and squall, or let their stupidity-aiding hatred present you with opportunities of escape. Not like me, sad to say.”
Jenkins coughed up blood, then almost strangled on it going back down. “No,” he agreed, finally, once he’d retched his air-pipe clear again. “Not like you at all, from what I heard... Bartram Haugh.”
At this, Haugh really did shrug. Pointing out: “And yet, you might well notice—’tween the two’ve us, chivalrous Mister Reese and me, I‘m the only one that’s still alive.”
“So you... do believe he’s the revenant I... painted him, at least.”
“Oh, stranger things’ve happened, I suppose. Hell, who would have ever thought I’d find some nonentity such as Fred Willicks’s ridiculous little life a fair enough fit to shape myself to? Then again, it was Phyllida who did the trick on that one, really, turning up on the next stage after like she did, all fresh and ready for love; had stars in her eyes the moment she heard his name come out my mouth, so who was I to disappoint?”
“U’huh,” Jenkins managed, unintentionally imitating verbally-truncated storekeep Mister Mahershah-whatsit. “’N... then, there’s hers and your... son, too....”
“Simon, yes—he’s mine sure enough, poor mite, no matter his last name. May he never have need to discover his own in-born capacities, in future.”
Haugh put just enough resonant tone of emotion into this last that Jenkins could almost think he meant it, ’til he remembered who he was talking to.
“Truth to tell, I thought you knew already,” he continued, conversationally. “That this quest of yours was some ruse, a protracted wild goose chase, calculated to get me out where you could pull a gun and collect the Union’s money. But it took a bare half-day’s ride with you for me to see how lamentably honest a fellow you really are, Sheriff, and that’s when I decided to let our trip here play itself to the full—further away you took me, after all, the less likely anybody’d be to prevent me covering your corpse over, once our business was done.”
“Always meant t’... kill me, then... is what you’re sayin’.”
“Well, yes. You’d’ve wrecked what I’ve built, otherwise, and I can’t have that.”
Jenkins coughed yet once more, and murmured something wetly in on top of it—
Haugh leant in, waiting for him to repeat it.
“I... pity you,” Jenkins said, finally, drawing a snort. He rolled his eyes far enough to glimpse something both sudden and surprising, though horribly familiar. And closer by far to boot than he would’ve ever expected, given the softness of its approach—
Haugh, however, noticed none of the above, being far too in love with the sound of his own voice, and continued to muse aloud: “Well, that’s your choice, little good as it’ll do you, or me... for you see, Sheriff, I’m no firm believe in God at all, let alone his mercy, or his judgment either. Christ knows what it was you thought you saw, back there in—Esther, was it?—but Sartain Reese had about as little to do with it as grace has with error: I shot him down, saw the front of his heart pop out from under his breast-bone in a spray, and I’ve killed more than enough men in my time to know the way they fall. Reese could tell you the same, if you was here.”
To this, and with gross effort, Jenkins could conjure only a dull creaking noise—something he himself was surprised to recognize, eventually, as laughter.
“Hysteria, eh? That’s one way to salve the sting. But we’ve chatted long enough, for my money, so... damn, what are you lookin’ at, anyhow?”
Said a voice from behind, preternaturally calm: “Always did please you to think me a fool, Bart, just as it pleased me to let you. But that’s over with, now.”
(Much like all else.)
These few words—or just the sound of ‘em, Jenkins didn’t wonder—were enough to turn outlaw Bart Haugh, a man with more sins on his soul than Judas and three thousand-odd dollars on his head, sheet-white. He turned towards their speaker, slow as river weed current-caught, perhaps unaware he was even doing so; blanched yet further when he saw who stood there, making all the tiny, charm-crinkled lines on his face stand out like scars.
For: it was the man himself, of course—though “man” might no longer be the most accurate term, Jenkins thought, given. “One-Shot” Reese, in whatever he used for flesh, corporeal enough to touch yet inhumanly mutable under pressure; Sartain Stannard Reese, his sandy locks slicked down with the same phantom blood still sticky-coating him from head to toe, skull topped in a buzzing black crown of flies. He cocked his head, regarding Haugh narrowly through almost yellow eyes, and watched that anything-but-gentleman go suddenly all a-tremble, shook juiceless, same as some storm-withered leaf.
“Been quite the spell, Bart,” Reese told him, unhurriedly, like they were chatting over supper. “Yes, I did have myself some rare difficulty, finding you. But then, you always did know how to make us both scarce, when it suited your plans best.”
Haugh gulped, straining for even the smallest measure of his usual sanguine humor. “Sartain—” he began, only to find himself cut off when Reese waved him silent.
“The Sheriff here has a fair idea how long I’ve been at it,” he continued, indicating Jenkins, “not to mention the cost of my quest, to me, and others. Oh, but I walked so far and found so very little, ‘sides from a grinding sameness! Delivering judgment on others, yet finding no respite of my own... it was enough, frankly, to drive me to despair. Until, just the other day, I received possible word of my imminent respite, and from the most unlikely of sources—that still, small voice above I catch just a whisper of, I only strain hard enough, letting slip how after all this time, you were finally comin’ to meet me.”
Haugh shook his head frantically, shoulders hiked like he wanted to back away but couldn’t gather the necessary steam. Instead he stayed fear-rooted while Reese stepped closer, stained boot-soles leaving reddish clumps of print on the street beneath; looked back Jenkins’s way as he did so, watching him spit up a pint or so more of his own blood to keep his airways open, and sighed at the sight.
“Should’ve kept to your own place, Sheriff, ‘specially after I worked so hard to clear it out for you—but I guess you know that, already. Who’d you leave in charge?”
“Good men,” Jenkins half-retched, in reply. “Not... too many left t’make... trouble for ‘em, after you was... done with us.”
“Well. S’pose you can take some consolation, then, knowing they won’t need to rely on your return.” To Haugh: “And what about you, sergeant? For I do hear you made a place for yourself on the other side of things, putting your skill at preying on your own kind to good use.”
“I was a marshal, or close as makes no never-mind. Took a wife, made a son. Got another coming.”
Reese nodded, with just a hint of sympathy. “It’s a hard world for those abandoned, and that’s the truth. But it’s hardly their fault the man they call father and husband can’t be trusted to recall how he made his true troth-pledge years back, to me.”
“That, between us—that was boys’ foolery, Sartain. Spartan fun, best kept for Army days.”
“Was that all? No, I don’t think so; much as I pity this gal you tricked into bed with you, least she’ll make your children a home and pray for you after, little as you deserve any such thing. You and I, though—we’re shield-brothers sworn, blooded together in battle, now and hereafter. Remember the song you taught me, riding away from Lincoln? That was prophecy, ‘friend’, disguised in tune. Don’t believe I’ve ever let it out of my mind since.”
And here he tipped his gory head back, conjuring a low and moaning refrain—some dour Appalachian holler slowed ’til its verses stuck fast in the mid’s crevasses, harmfully catching, like lines from a Satan-inspired hymnal.
Oh the owl, the owl
Is a lonesome bird
It chills my heart
With dread and terror
That’s someone’s blood
There on its wing
That’s someone’s blood
There on its feather...
A pause, followed by this conclusion, with a mindful glance Haugh’s way—
But now I know
That time has come
When you and I
Shall be as one.
“Not now,” Bart Haugh denied it, in return, his voice like dust. “Oh God, no. Not now, not now....”
“As well now as any other time, don’t you think—for given all you’ve done, did you really believe there’d be no consequences to come?” Reese gave a cold sketch of a smile. “If so, consider yourself schooled, for here I stand, a walking object lesson; your destiny’s sketch, guilty on every charge, with only the barest fraction of my due payment yet rendered. And I did nothing at all, Bart, that you hadn’t done first, or told me to.”
“My job, it began as a jest, yes—but I was good at it. I’ve got a boy.” Hopeless: “Doesn’t that count, for anything?”
Reese shrugged. “Should it?”
Maybe not, Jenkins thought, too exhausted to stay even minimally upright. And fell face-down before he could hope to stop it, filling his bloody mouth with dust—dry dust turning pink, then red, becoming mud.
He choked himself to sleep, in fullest expectation of never waking again.
Much later, after he did revive, laid up convalescent in what had been Bart Haugh’s bed—or Fred Willicks’s, rather, a notion he never could bring himself to disabuse the Widow Willicks of, even once she’d finally agreed to swap her lost spouse’s name for Jenkins’s own—Jenkins made sure to tell her how “Willicks” had gone down fighting, bravely managing to transpose himself ‘tween Jenkins and their supernatural foe, and paying the price for his heroism. He slathered detail on detail, ’till by the fourth repetition, the story ended with “Willicks” throwing his life away gladly by all but grabbing “One-Shot” Reese and dragging that troubled creature single-handed down to whatever cell awaited him in the Infernal realms, instead of... the opposite, basically.
T’was Phyllida he had to thank for his life, it turned out—said she’d had a dream, or been sent one, and used her God-lent strength to trace his and “Willicks”’ trail at as high a speed as the ox-cart would support, with little Simon riding literal shotgun. They’d picked up a doctor in one of the towns Reese’s route had barely grazed and found Jenkins in dire straits, his wound miraculously glued shut by a fortuitous chemical coincidence of blood-mud trapped ‘neath Jenkins’s flopped trunk forming a loose poultice which unseasonably fierce overnight frost turned to ice, plugging things deep enough to prevent further infection; he’d suffered through fever and bronchitis before mending yet emerged hale, regaining his strength with surprising rapidity.
Miraculous, his eventual wife called it, and Jenkins didn’t disagree, since if there really was nobody up there looking out for him, it seemed bad form to throw that sort of happy synchrony back in the universe’s face.
Then again, might be it was less gratitude he felt than respect, reverence, or simple fear. Because, as Phyllida liked to point out, Reese had been an instrument of judgment, though a singularly rough and contrary one—which meant that the same force Jenkins credited with his recovery had probably set Reese in his path, in the first place. Why? To teach a lesson, prove a point?
Reese, who was indubitably gone—laid back down, if not to rest, with Haugh surely traveling alongside him in proverbial double-harness, wherever their eventual destination. Which was probably all the conclusion that dreadful figure’d ever really wanted, in Jenkins’s own estimation.
Impossible to discern which of the images he occasionally found himself summoning at odd moments, caught between dream and memory, were actually based in hard experience. Yet sometimes the former sheriff turned let’s-call-him-marshal heard voices and shivered to recognize their tones—one wildly pleading, the other coolly certain yet somewhat dead, too tired even for anger. Saying:
Moral deeds mean nothing, when the heart’s not in it. That‘s a good man, right there, with your bullet through his chest—God only knows I’d do my best to save him, if I weren’t made for other work entirely. You and I, though... for all that’s passed, we’re just the same as we ever were.
All I’m asking for’s a little mercy, Sartain. Just that.
Oh, but this is a little mercy, Bart. You really don’t want to see what no mercy looks like.
What then? Jenkins sometimes wondered. Had Reese pulled Haugh into an embrace and begun to decay? Had the dirt sucked them both down like a sink-hole, then, while heavy rains and flash-floods—no longer sanguine yet hardly natural, given the way things had gone those last few months weather-wise—scoured it all clean overtop, leaving no trace at all to show they’d ever been there?
One way or t’other, if Reese’s misfortunes and Haugh’s comeuppance formed any sort of sermon, Jenkins might as well account himself converted. For though his job put him in constant contact with bad men (and some women) doing evil things, he fought hard to keep himself un-blooded, at least by the standards that’d cost Esther township’s previous Sheriff his life and—possibly—his salvation. In a world where invisible principalities and harsh recompense were no longer in doubt, in other words, Jenkins thought it better by far to keep his soul’s immortality intact, safe, at all costs that didn’t endanger the same in others... and let his body, in the main, take care of itself.
Haugh’s second child was born as summer turned to fall, a girl, blithe, kind and fair. They named her for Jenkins’s former home, and loved her as best life’s vicissitudes would allow for.
Return to Issue #132