The pitchfork stands like a flagpole, both tines thrust so deep in the Deputy’s belly that it didn’t shake loose when he was shoved from the hayloft and fell across the trough, breaking his back.
Could he see it, sticking out of him? Feel it, while he waited for the mercy shot? I walk into the livery stable’s warm shadows and look down at his face, wondering what thoughts The Hired Gun’s bullet tore apart.
We don’t die easy. He’s the first, this go-around, but the rest of us will follow along soon enough. The Marshal rides into town with his Deputies, but they can’t stay for the showdown—that’s mano-a-mano, one on one. Even if it’s The Marshal who’s been chosen, so fated to win, his opponent kills us off before that gunfight. Whichever of them rides into the sunset, he rides alone.
I sense movement, in the deeper shadows back of an empty stall, but don’t react. Could be I’m next—that The Hired Gun doesn’t figure one corpse is enough for an opener, or he wants to even the odds a little faster this time. Hope isn’t any part of me, but I don’t leave the barn, or reach for my six-shooter. I wait on him making a move, despite there’s not so much as the faintest whiff of his gunsmoke.
And it isn’t him steps forward.
“He dead, Mister?” the kid asks. Small for his age, dark-haired, pale-eyed and intense.
“Deputy,” I tell him, because there ain’t much else left to me. No name. No face.
The kid looks over, like he asked a real question. As if someone could be stabbed, and broken, and shot in the head, and still live. That’s when I know for sure he’s the one who summoned us.
More often than not it’s a young boy, or a girl just shy of being a woman. Not always, but a calling forth takes the kind of feverish certainty that’s burning this one up. Faith and hate become a consuming passion for revenge. Whatever the right and wrongs of it, they always get what they want because nothing else matters a damn to them. When they choose us, the law, for their champion, The Marshal calls them an innocent. But there’s no innocence in what they want, or what they ask.
The kid doesn’t blink. “He dead, Deputy?”
Maybe. Finally. But the odds ain’t good.
“Yes,” I say, because if he is, one day I might be too. Finally. In a way that means some rancor-steeped ‘innocent’ can’t bring me back.
He nods, throws his chest out, and sticks his thumbs into the waistband of his pants. The pose should be kind of funny on a kid his age only it ain’t, and I’m chilled numb when he says, “Good.”
♦ ♦ ♦
The Marshal’s staked his claim on the La Llorona. Sitting at the saloon’s poker table, washed and shaved, a bottle of bourbon at his elbow, his chips piled high. No townsfolk were bold enough to join him—they seldom are—so he’s playing five-card-draw with his Deputies.
He can’t lose.
Circling the tableau vivant, I hesitate a couple of paces wide of The Marshal’s shoulder. He looks up and raises an eyebrow. I was gone longer than expected.
Called at the undertaker. Not that it matters.
The grey eyes narrow.
We both knew what I’d find. But he sent me, so his want’s a worm in my guts, worse every minute, and it won’t stop squirming till I’ve done his will. I step closer. “He’s dead.”
Hard to tell if The Marshal’s poker-face is schooling or indifference. He lifts the bottle, pours till his glass is back to three-quarters full, sets it down, then plucks a card from his hand and tosses it away. I see the discard’s face because he means me to. Jack of Diamonds.
Death doesn’t matter.
But I’m hankering for when it did.
The Marshal takes his draw, slips it in with the other four cards, and pushes out a stack of chips. “Drinks are on the house, if you want one.”
It’s not an order, so there’s no compulsion besides the vague familiarity of an abandoned habit. I nod and walk over to the burnished redwood bar, trying not to see myself in the big gilt-framed mirror on the wall behind. “Bourbon.”
Our faces change, one summoning to the next, and looking at a reflection that must be mine but instead seeing a stranger unsettles me more than a mite. I never shave myself. When the town’s too small for a barbershop I let the stubble grow. Because if you stare too long in the mirror you get to thinking your real face might be hidden under that mask, and I don’t want to find out what scars I’ll wear after searching for it with the razor.
The bartender sets me up, hesitates, but leaves the bottle and retreats. He’s nervy. He’d step into the back room, only The Marshal might take offence at being left unattended.
That, and the mirror, and the place being so quiet I can hear the cards shuffled, drives me out again after a single sip of whiskey. Glass in one hand, bottle in the other, I head for the doors. Might be The Hired Gun is waiting on me. Might be I could care less.
“Deputy?” It’s not The Marshal challenges my departure, but another, dark-haired Deputy.
Seems like we used to try and work out who was who, but there’s no time for friendship, no point recalling old debts, and the memories fade. It’s for the best—we watch each other die, over and over, and that’s easier when you don’t have much reason to care.
“Getting some air before I hit the sack,” I tell The Marshal, because it’s him that wants to know. He nods, and I push through the swing doors without spilling a drop from my glass.
♦ ♦ ♦
I work through half the bottle while I stroll the town’s lengthening shadows. We can’t get drunk, and I’ve never sipped bourbon for the taste, but the act’s a solace. Only, each time I think I’ve found the perfect place to sit, watch the sunset, and finish up, I change my mind. I don’t question, but walk that little bit further until I’m past the false fronts and boardwalks, the scattering of shacks and lean-tos behind the main street, and almost out of town. The creek stops me. A wide, steep-banked cut with the water shrunk to a trickle.
I follow its meander. There’s a rope strung between two drought-twisted cottonwoods, festooned with checked shirts and flannel underwear. Down on the shingle of the dry bed, the girl’s got a washtub and board, and a big pot over a fire. Didn’t know it, but she’s what I was looking for.
The kid is with her, throwing pebbles at one of the creeks shallow pools. More of them hit rock than water. He’s all lines and angles, and stiff as a puppet.
The girl upends the tub and watches the water spill over the stones. Her voice is a sad murmur that the breeze cuts into incomprehensible snatches and the creek’s babbling drowns. Still talking to him, she bends double beside the copper, smothering the last sullen flames beneath.
I can’t hear what she says, and the kid’s not listening. The only peacemaker he respects is The Hired Gun’s Colt 45. He talks back and the rage that’s eating him into a shadow spits its bile.
She shakes her head, straightens, and I can’t tell if she tries to shrug off the sharp words or stretch the soul-deep weariness from her bones, but he stops sniping and goes back to tossing pebbles.
Stepping as cautiously as an old woman, the girl crosses the shingle and climbs the bank. She touches one of the drying shirts, slips off the pegs, and folds it into her elbow. Holds it there while she sidesteps and checks its neighbor.
I take a swig of bourbon from the bottle, not bothering with the glass.
The kid yells. Something short and sharp. He runs across the shingle, leaps up the bank, and snatches the shirts from the girl’s grasp, throwing them down.
She fends him off, but he shoves back, harder, and she falls to hands and knees in the dirt. Yelping and snarling, he drags a pair of long johns from their pegs, flings them in her face and reaches for another. They don’t give as easy, but they bring the line lower and he grabs hold and tugs.
It isn’t my business, but I head over anyway. “That’s enough!”
The crack as the branch breaks is sudden as a gunshot. The kid falls to his knees with the rope, but he’s up as fast as he went down, kicking clear of the laundry, stomping a little more for good measure. No fool though because he runs, vanishing into a thicket of sage brush and osage before I can lay a hand on him.
And the girl doesn’t wait on me being gentlemanly. She struggles to her feet, hugging the long johns to her chest—the only piece of clothing that hasn’t touched the ground.
“Thank you,” she says. For politeness sake, because I didn’t do anything to earn it.
I pick up a shirt and brush at the dust. “Ain’t so bad.” Only, half the washing was damp and the dirt’ll stick.
“Mrs. Jacobs makes certain I don’t cheat her boarders.” She finds the shadow of a smile for my masculine foolishness, shakes her head, slings the long johns around her neck like a muffler, and picks up the loose shirts. “They need doing over but there’s not enough heat left in the day for them to dry.”
It’s her quiet courage draws me in. Her eyes are red with tiredness and tears, but there’s stubborn in the back of them. I push the bourbon into her free hand. She stares at it, and me, then takes a swig.
“You came with the marshal.” It isn’t a question. “Mr. Daniels called you in, to take care of the stranger.”
I nod, and almost say ‘I’m a deputy,’ but she passes the bottle back and I drown that half-lie in bourbon.
“Only it’s him as started it.” She takes the shirt from me. “My brother brought the stranger here, didn’t he.”
There’s no doubt in her, she knows the truth, but I still say, “Yes.”
And she nods. “I could kill him for that.”
While she gathers the laundry, I fix the washing line and drag the tub and the copper close by the bank. We don’t talk about anything but what needs done. Then I walk her home.
♦ ♦ ♦
The shack’s a few bits of lumber and some old boards, hammered together and roofed with tin. She’s piled sod against the walls—so they keep the drafts out and don’t topple at the first nudge.
“Folk wanted us to leave, even offered money for the fares,” she says. And they’d made it hard to stay because no one wanted a reminder of what they’d let happen, without any of those good neighbors saying a word against. She shrugs. “We hadn’t any place better to go.”
I don’t know what she sees, looking at her home, but I see her defiant stand. Her hate and self-pity and anger, used up in hauling salvage and hammering bent nails.
She opens the narrow plank door, vanishes into the darkness, and lights a candle lantern. The room’s still gloomier than the twilight. She takes the washing from me and sets it on a three-legged table that’s leant up against one wall.
There’s always an innocent, and there’s always a woman, and I don’t have any business being here. But she turns, beckons, and I close the door behind me.
The broken-slatted chair I’m fussed into is a match for those at the La Llorona. She busies herself in the meat safe, then serves us a cold supper of bread and hard cheese and a wrinkled apple. I don’t refuse her hospitality.
We talk a little. She helps me finish the bourbon, and we sit companionably, with the darkness pressing closer.
After a while she clears the plates. There’s a mattress rolled in the far corner of the door-side wall, and she rummages through the blankets folded beside it, coming back with a short stack of well-read dime novels and story papers. She puts them on the table beside me. The topmost is a copy of Brave and Bold.
“They don’t have names or faces, not real ones,” she says. “That’s what he’s called up, isn’t it? The stranger will make everyone sorry, and kill Mr. Daniels, and—” Her voice breaks, and she puts her hand over her mouth, as shocked by what’s come from her lips as a lady who’s let rip an unbecoming belch.
I shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t be talking to her. “He’s summoned vengeance.”
She shakes her head. “He’s called up a story and made me a part of it.” Taking the books and papers she flings them at his mattress. “And I don’t want to be.”
But she is. There’s always a woman. And she plays her part, one way or the other.
“The stranger’ll come for you,” I tell her, trying to tip-toe round the vulgarity. “If you’re nice to him—”
“I turned him away,” she says. Just that and no more.
Whether it’s The Marshal or The Hired Gun, the innocent’s champion gets the woman. He’ll be good to her, but she’ll never forget, never be quite the same when he rides away.
“If it’s not him, willing, then it’s...” His opponent. And her unwilling. One or the other. I don’t like to think about it. Not this time around; not with this girl.
“No,” she says, soft and sweet, but there’s steel in the refusal. And a sting. “I’ve read the stories and I’ve made my choice.” She smiles at me. “Not him, and not your marshal. I’ll have you.”
It isn’t my business. I shouldn’t be here. I’m a Deputy. I ride in with The Marshal, and The Hired Gun kills me. That’s how it is.
I head for the door, but I don’t make it. She’s faster, standing in my way. If I’d really wanted to go, I’d have made it. If I didn’t want to be kissed, I wouldn’t let her pull my head down. There’s bourbon on her breath, but it’s not the whiskey reminds me what life tastes like.
She breaks the kiss, presses closer, one hand searching out my shirt buttons.
“I was a man, once.” The words escape me, but they don’t sound like what I mean. She pauses. “Before. A long time ago.” I can’t explain.
“Once upon a time,” she says. “That’s how stories start.”
I can’t say no. Her certainty is a thousand times stronger than mine, and I’ve nothing else. Maybe I gave all of it away to become... whatever it is I’ve become.
She takes my hand, and the lantern, and leads me to the blanket-door in the partition. The other room’s a closet—no space for anything but a mattress and blankets and a small chest at the foot of her bedding that she sets the lantern down on. Next to a battered cloth doll.
My last chance. “How old are you?”
“Seventeen.” She unfastens the buttons of her dress, and puts my hand inside.
I palm her breast through the petticoat and don’t tell her she looks older. Worn. “You’ve done this before...”
“Not enough to lose my reputation.” She closes her eyes, leans into me. “Or I’d be nice and cozy in a room over the La Llorona.”
I take my time undressing her, half-expecting to be interrupted. For The Marshal to come calling. And not sure what’ll happen if he does. She doesn’t rush me.
Maybe I’ve used whores, the same way as I’ve bought shaves and drunk whiskey, but I don’t remember the last time I made love. If I ever have. Bit parts in a story just don’t.
She pulls my shirt from my pants and drags it off, her hands roaming. Then she leans away, turns me into the weak flickering light from the lantern, and stares.
“Scars.” She traces the lines with one finger. The slashes of knives, the dots and stars of bullet holes, the ragged seam of an amputation: pale silver marks that aren’t true scars but the ghosts of my wounds. Death upon death recorded on my skin. Her hand drifts up, to the circle of the hangman’s noose.
“They summon us, and we die,” I tell her. Because she’s got a right to know, before me and her lie down on the mattress, before—”I die.”
She shudders, presses her lips to my chest, my heart. “You were a man, a good man,” she tells me. “I don’t think you’ve stopped being one.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Afterwards we sleep, wrapped together in her blankets. It’s barely dawn when she leaves, murmuring, “This isn’t fair.” But she tells me to stay, to close my eyes and she’ll wake me for breakfast.
I’ve barely roused, so it’s easy to slip away into dreams again. They turn into a nightmare, where an angry mob puts a noose around my neck and I drop, kicking and choking.
I jerk awake, heart in my mouth and pulse racing, not sure if it’s the bad dream that scared me or that I dreamt at all. We don’t. Sleep’s our escape, a few hours away from the nightmare of what we are.
The door-blanket twitches, and poking her head through she sees I’m awake and smiles. “Breakfast’s ready, when you are.”
And I’m hungry. It’s been so long since eating was more than a habit, a pastime, that I didn’t recognize the hollowness in my chest. Or maybe it’s not food I’m hungry for, but her. I pull the door-blanket aside, finding my clothes and dressing by the half-light that creeps from the open cabin door.
I find her outside, cooking grits over a cowchip fire. She smiles, and I wonder if we haven’t got time for another poke before I go die. Standing behind her, I wait till her hands are clear of the pot and hang myself around her shoulders. She leans into me, turns her head, and I kiss her cheek.
Things get a little warmer, and we’re near to forgetting about breakfast and going back inside when I hear the rattling cough. Might be it’s meant as a polite warning.
“Deputy.” The Marshal’s standing not ten yards away, and I didn’t sense him.
Slow and easy, I put myself between him and her. But I’m thinking it must be too late for him to be after her, that what we did changed how this story will end. “Marshal.”
“Surprised you didn’t hear the commotion,” he says. “They found a body in the creek. A boy.” Her breath catches, and she presses her face to my shoulder. “Folks tell me it’s this girl’s kin. Her little brother.” Her hands fist in my shirt, dragging on it as her knees buckle. I turn to catch her up. Hold tight, and feel her shaking. “I’d be obliged if the girl’d take a look, so as we’re sure.”
We walk with him, down to the creek and the shingle strand where I met her. The Marshal watches me, not the girl tucked into my side. He senses the change—that I’m not keeping half an eye on him, like a dog waiting on his master’s next command. But it goes deeper. Last time he saw me I was a part of the same story he is, but now—
—the kid’s dead.
They’ve left him on the shingle. His hair soaked black and his shirt wet, but his pants aren’t more than splashed.
“He didn’t come home last night,” his sister says, a quiver in her voice. “But we’d quarreled, and sometimes he sleeps at the livery, or on Mrs. Jacobs’ porch swing.” I hug her closer, for comfort, and so she can hide her face.
The Marshal nods. “Looks like he slipped, fell in the water, and drowned before he’d got his senses back.”
She went out early to catch up on the laundry he’d spoiled. The copper and tub are tucked in by the bank, but not where I left them last night. I don’t do more than glance that way, but I see the washing hanging on the line. Either she missed seeing him, even while she was hauling water from the creek, or he drowned after she finished. When the sun was up. Or else...
I let go of her, crouch beside the kid, and make a brief examination. Closing his eyes, I take a sniff over his mouth. Lye soap, and there’s the faint white circles of dried bubbles round his nose. Standing, I look The Marshal in the eye and say, “Well he weren’t drunk, but seems like he hit his head when he fell.”
I’m in the way when he tries to see for himself, but not to stop a grieving sister falling to her knees beside the dead boy. She brushes back his fringe, and wipes his face with the hem of her skirt. Like a mother making her child presentable for company.
The Marshal drops his voice to a rasping whisper. “Did you kill the innocent?”
“No.” Never occurred to me he’d think I would, or that my purgatory allowed for so direct a salvation. But I’ve changed, and he knows it.
Was it before she killed her brother that I started having appetites rather than habits? Because she wanted me or because— The Marshal’s set his narrow-eyed stare to reading my soul, and might be he still can, so I stop thinking over the how and why.
“An accident,” I say. “That’s the start and finish of it.” Which it is. The kid’s dead. And anyhow, he chose The Hired Gun as his champion, not the law.
Takes a moment or two, but The Marshal nods. “Nothing left for us to do. Time we were leaving town.”
“I’ll carry the k— the boy to the undertaker.” I shrug. “There’s no room in his sister’s shack for laying him out proper.”
The Marshal blinks. Waits on me saying something more, and then tells me, “Saddle up, Deputy.”
It’s an order, plain and simple, but I don’t feel the slightest compulsion to obey. I offer my hand. The closest to a goodbye that I’ll give or get. “It’s been”—endless—”You’ve always been decent.”
His grip’s stronger than mine, but colder. “I was a man once, Jack.”
Disturbing words, but the name... fits me the way a name should. As if I’d been called by it all my life.
It’s my turn to nod. “A good man.”
He glances at the kid’s corpse, and walks away.
♦ ♦ ♦
After we’ve done with seeing to her brother, she leads me back to her place. Not a smidgen of remorse showing, until she sets eyes on his bedroll and the dime novels. Then she’s crying again, but for what she’s done, not for the loss of her only kin.
“You killed him,” I tell her, because it’s easier on the both of us than waiting till she can force the words out. She sags against me. Her grief as hard as the struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. I sit her down in the chair, and crouch beside her.
“He was angry, like he was yesterday, over me saying no to his... stranger,” she says, through her hands. “Only worse, because—” Because she’d made her own choice and not gone along with his. I put my hand on her thigh. “After all I’d done, he called me dirty names. I —”
She lifts her face, and the anger pushes through the sorrow for just a moment. “It wasn’t fair. He didn’t care one bit what would happen to me. It was all about his pain and his story and his revenge. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right and then he hit me and called you a— and I hit him back and he fell against the tub and I just pushed his head down...” She’s thin, from sharing what would have been little enough for one, but you can’t haul water and make soap without building muscle.
For a while she sobs, but it calms into hiccups and sniffles. I don’t have a handkerchief to offer. Pulling up the hem of her dress, she wipes her nose.
“It wasn’t fair, Jack,” she says, and I know she’s scared to look me in the eye, but she does anyway. She’s strong.
“No, it wasn’t,” I tell her, and stand, and pick her out of the chair. She holds the blanket-door aside as I carry her through to her bed, and wraps her arms around my neck when I set her down, making certain I mean to stay with her. But I’d already decided that.
Later, half-asleep, I think on us married—with a small place of our own and a couple of kids—and whether I can talk her into that, and into going far away enough rumors won’t follow, so we can start fresh.
♦ ♦ ♦
She’s crying, still, when I wake. The tears seeping from under closed eyelids. Her face is wet with them, and her hair, and a growing patch at the edge of the blanket. I watch her, in the dim light that finds us.
There’s not going to be a happy ending. But I can pretend for a little longer.
She knows there’s something wrong the moment she opens her eyes. Maybe there were tears in the dream she left. If she can still dream. Her fingers grip the damp edge of the blanket, touch her hair, her face. I kiss her forehead, because I can’t stand seeing the fear, or letting her see mine.
“La Llorona,” she murmurs. The Weeping Woman. Who drowns her children, for spite or love, and then wanders the riverbank. Crying. I want to deny it, but all I can do is hug her close as she whispers into my shoulder. “Every bit of me feels dry, inside, and I want—” She shudders. “Need. To go by the creek.”
It takes me a while to say anything. Her tears drip, and roll down my chest. The ones on my cheeks and chin are mine. “I’ll take you there,” I tell her.
Because I can’t take her away. She broke the story we were trapped in and freed me, but fell headlong into another.
We dress. She finds a clean petticoat and her bud-sprigged cotton Sunday best. They cling, once her tears soak the cloth.
I’m strapping my six-shooter on when the notion strikes. “Is there a preacher in town?”
She shakes her head. “Not enough religion here to pay for a church. A circuit rider comes by twice a year.”
“I’ll go find one, bring him back with me, and he can marry us.” Might be it won’t work, that it wouldn’t work if we tied the knot this minute, but La Llorona doesn’t get her man, and breaking the story’s all I’ve got to hope on.
“You go find him, Jack.” There’s the glint of steel behind her tears. “I’ll wait for you.”
When I kiss her, her lips are dry and crack, and when we step outside she shrinks from the daylight. But the sun’s low and the shadows long, and between them she walks in the darkness of mine.
I talk over where I’ll look for a minister—wondering if she can wait, if the story will let her, or if she’ll have to be summoned somehow—and then I tell her about the house and kids. And because I’m looking at her, and hoping she’ll smile, we walk straight into The Hired Gun.
I’d figured him as long gone, like The Marshal, but he peels from out the shadow of an oak tree.
“You killed him,” he says, not looking at me.
“Yes.” She knows there’s no use explaining. Her brother wanted revenge, and that’s all The Hired Gun’s about.
He draws his Peacemaker.
“You’re not the law.” I step between them as he cocks the hammer. Might be she’s already legend enough that a bullet won’t harm her, but might be she’s not.
“I’m the law of the gun.” He smiles. “What are you, now?”
Jack. “Her man.”
“No, Jack. Don’t.” She pushes against my back, but I don’t move.
“Won’t it feel better, to do this right?” I challenge.
He nods, slowly. The champions fight first. That’s what he understands. He slips the Peacemaker back into his holster. “Yes.”
I walk from the shadows, taking the fight where she can’t follow—though she does, pulling on me and begging me to leave, until the sun blinds and burns her and I have to carry her back out of it.
The Hired Gun waits, patient. He’s got time enough before sunset to put a bullet in both of us.
But there’s less time than he thinks, because you can’t kill what can’t be killed. I take my stand, there, between the edge of town and the creek. She sits, silent tears running down her cheeks. By the time he’s finished with me, might be she’s close enough to the water and the story... La Llorona doesn’t fear bullets when she walks the night.
I face The Hired Gun. The way I never have, and never could have. And for that, too, I’m thankful she chose me.
He makes his move. Fast and startling, even with me knowing he’ll draw.
I take my time in a hurry. See his muzzle flash. Hear the shot and the echo that’s my return. But no bullet bites.
The Hired Gun falls. Dead. I didn’t miss.
There’s a silence, the whole world standing still. I put my six-shooter away and walk back into the shadows.
She’s pale and trembling, and I feel cold to the bone when she wraps herself around me. Her kisses sting my throat, my cheek, my lips. I sweep her off her feet and carry her to the creek.
One last chill kiss, before I set her down and step back. The water’s only up to my ankles, but she sinks into it, like she’s taking a bath, till her hair’s floating about her shoulders.
“Wait for me,” I tell her. “I’ll come back.”
“I’ll wait.” She lifts her eyes to mine, but all I see is the glint of tears. “However long it takes.”
She sinks lower, vanishing into a drowning deep. I walk away, climb the bank, and I don’t mean to go anywhere near the Hired Gun’s corpse, but I do.
The Peacemaker’s lying there, six inches from his outflung hand. I tuck it into the waistband of my pants. My taking it doesn’t signify.
“I’ll wait and hope,” she calls after me. “But any like my brother, any who’d summon The Hired Gun, if they come by the water...” Her voice whispers. I look back, but I don’t see La Llorona. “What they’d do isn’t fair, and I’ll stop them.”
The shadows are merging into nightfall, and I’ve business to take care of. Somewhere else to be. A purpose.
I fetch my horse from the livery, and ride out of town.
Into the west.