Now it just so happens that the day Black Jonas rides into to town, there’s a bit of a blaze going. So he’s bobbing down Main Canal on the back of his pleesaur Essie, and he tightens the reins at the smell of smoke and the clangor of the fire brigade streaming up the canal behind him on their overcrowded skiffs. Black Jonas pulls to the side and takes it all in: the bone-white sunshine, the lapping of water at his boots, the faces of a town he hasn’t seen in twenty years. He scents a certain something about the air that day, hard and lonely, a feeling like a lifeless reef.
He brings Essie up to one of the old abandoned mooring posts by Benessa Central Station. He’s back here for one reason only: to find a way back to the continent. Back to his home. But to do that, he needs to find a man named Doone. And he hasn’t seen Doone in a long, long time.
It’s a quiet time of day, not counting the distant clatter of fire bells. Black Jonas secures Essie to a ring occupied by a massive, rusted droop-chain and walks down the promenade, noting the old storefronts as he sees them. Brackysaur bays still line the boardwalk where land meets canal, big ol’ rectangular cutouts in the once-white stone, used for loading and unloading back in the days of the dinosaur riders.
He crosses a step bridge, heading for the nearest saloon. It’s a new establishment—Black Jonas seems to recall a line of somber warehouses here—but he figures he’s got to start somewhere. And some things about a man like Doone never change, twenty years or no.
The saloon’s about half-occupied when he enters. Some of the crowd perks up to ogle at the color of his skin, the newness that seems to radiate off him in an old town like this. But they don’t know that he’s the old one here; it’s the town around him that’s changed. He takes a seat at the back and orders his beer three-quarters dilute.
“Thank you kindly,” he says quietly when the maid brings it.
She frowns and takes another canvass at him: his brown skin, his eyes, his conspicuously empty holster. “You new in town?” Her tone is not cordial.
“No,” he says. “Not really.”
“Then you been gone a long time. Welcome home.”
“Long time, yes,” mutters Black Jonas, contemplating his beer. “Home, no.”
There’s a way about these things, Black Jonas has learned. You don’t just go waltzing in to the biggest saloon in town and start dropping questions. Not if you’ve just come in to town riding on the back of a living memory. Not if your skin’s a certain shade. Then it’s best you sit in the corner, sip your watery beer, and observe.
But there’s a lot to be seen when you’ve got an eye for the right things, and Black Jonas takes note as the patterns of civilization come into focus around him. There’s a quiet game of canal cribbage being played at the big round table in the far corner. One of the men is clearly winning, his chips stacking up in front of him like an ivory dessert. But it’s all happening with a kind of muted efficiency: there’s no hollering, no banging on the table, no cheating. Things have sure changed around these parts. And after about half an hour, a suave-looking blue-eyed fellow gets up from the bar, moseys over to the card table, and measures off a portion of the winner’s chips, all businesslike. Then play resumes.
What happened here? wonders Black Jonas. But he’s seen what he needs to see. So he drains the rest of his beer, sets down his mug, and stands. He makes a beeline for the blue-eyed fellow, pulls up a stool next to him at the bar.
“Well hello,” says the blue-eyed fellow, with exaggerated warmth. “I don’t believe I know you.”
“I’m looking for Sam Doone,” says Black Jonas directly.
“Sam Doone,” says the blue-eyed fellow, pronouncing each syllable. “Can’t say I know the name.”
Black Jonas studies the boy’s face. His eyes say he’s telling the truth. Doone, for all his scheming back then, isn’t in power here anymore. “Apologies,” says Black Jonas, mock-tipping his hat. “Case of mistaken identity.”
A blonde youngster at a nearby table speaks up. “Why, you’re Gentle Jonas, ain’t you?”
Black Jonas feels a spark of surprise. It’s been a while—do people still know him here? And by his old nickname, too.
“Nah,” he says, his throat beer-hoarse. “I ain’t him.”
The youngster wags a finger. “I swear, you look an awful lot like a body named Gentle Jonas. Notorious feller, back in the old days. Real ace with a gun. Skipped town, wanted for sixteen counts of murder. Or so they say.” He says the last part a little nervous-like, as if he’s just realized who he might be talking to.
The blue-eyed fellow cuts back in. “What brings you to Benessa County, stranger?”
“Nothing,” says Black Jonas. “Just passing through.” Which he is.
Later, Black Jonas tends to Essie. He takes chunks of pemmican from the chow bag and feeds his gal, the sandpaper of her snout sending tingles up his spine. He used to worry about her biting his arm off, the raw power of her jaws ripping through muscle and snapping bone. But that too was a long time ago. Once you get to know a pleesaur, he likes to say, you’ll see they never do anything by accident.
“You think we should stay, Ess?”
Essie stares, her neck snakelike, her eyes dark. The front walk of Benessa Central has been recently widened to make room for the new interpelago rails, and the neighborhood’s a lot prettier than when Black Jonas was last in town. But the rosy light of sunset makes it all look false, like an oil painting, and the air is tight with smoke. Things change fast on the frontier.
“Yeah, we still need the money if we want that train ticket home,” he says. “But I’ll wager Doone’s long gone by now.”
Essie worries at one of her saddle-straps.
“Nah, I don’t know where we’d go next.” Black Jonas sits over the lip of the mooring dock and nudges Essie’s snout away from her straps. “Leave that alone.” He thinks of why he’s here, of the old blood on his hands. He feels the tiredness in his bones, the sensation of being at wandering’s end and still not having found a resting place. About the home he hasn’t seen for decades, back on the mainland.
“Okay, Ess, you win. This place ain’t safe for the either of us, but seeing as we’re already here... let’s see if we can’t track this bastard down.”
Essie stretches for another chunk of pemmican, grinning.
He gets directions and rides across town, guiding Essie through brown waterways and deserted canals. They pass under the shadow of a hulking warehouse, once used for zinc and sulphur processing. The windows are boarded up, but the air still smells faintly of boiled egg. The corrals, where guanadons and nithymimers were once bred, are empty too.
Essie’s flippers make smooth ripples in the dark. Homes and businesses lean over them like silent watchers. Back twenty years ago they were built quick and shoddy, and no one ever took the time to correct it. Their tar smell is lifeless and familiar.
He arrives at the sheriff’s office just as the shadows are lengthening and the wind is picking up. He ducks inside to the tinkle of a tiny brass bell.
“I’m looking for a man named Sam Doone,” he says to the sheriff, a round molly who seems to spend a lot of time looking at her fingernails.
The sheriff leans back in her chair, gives Black Jonas that same up-and-down look everyone’s been giving him all day. “There’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. How long did you say you’ve been gone from Benessa County?”
“Well.” She sniffs. “Old Doone isn’t quite the public figure he was before, but he’s still around, alright. What do you want with him?”
Something about the sheriff’s question puts Black Jonas on guard. She’s giving the same look as that youngster in the saloon, before he asked about Gentle Jonas. “I’m not really at liberty to say.”
The sheriff looks up from her nails. She glances out the window at Essie’s sinuous form. “You’re a pleeboy, aren’t you?”
“Well, I’m gonna be blunt. For your sake, I hope you ain’t thinking of stirring up trouble. Men of your profession don’t have the best reputation round here, you understand.”
“I understand, ma’am.”
She chuckles. “Ain’t you polite.” She glances at the clock behind her. “Come back tomorrow at eight and I’ll bring you to him.”
Black Jonas rents a room at the lodge across the promenade. He has no idea if the sheriff is telling the truth—for all he knows, she’s got the wrong Doone, or Doone’s dead—but a wet spark of hope fizzles to life inside him anyway.
The lodge’s proprietress is a large-waisted widow who serves a stew of beans and seaweed for supper. Black Jonas is the only guest tonight, so she eats with him at the table. “Eat up, honey,” she says, slopping more on his plate, and smiles at him like he’s her son come back from Sunday school.
She calls herself Miss Carla, and later in the evening they get to talking about the past. She says she opened the lodge on an April whim, many years ago and three months after her husband died. “You’re a man, so you don’t know that when a woman’s husband dies round here, she becomes nothing,” says Miss Carla. “You’ve just gotta find a little hole to live in and hope to stay there for a while.”
Black Jonas nods. He knows, without her saying, that her husband died during the time of the dinosaur riders.
And she knows he knows. “Don’t worry for it,” she says quietly. “Times were hard for everyone.”
Black Jonas smiles a little, but the hard ball of guilt stays put in his belly. “So times are better now?”
Miss Carla laughs out loud. “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far.” She winks and changes the topic. “Say, what’s a fellow like you in town for anyway? If I had a pleesaur of my own, I’d spend every waking minute out there on the ocean. Don’t think I’d ever come back.”
“Just come back to see an old friend. Sheriff’s bringing me to him tomorrow.”
“Sheriff, eh?” There’s a nervous glint in Miss Carla’s eyes, but it’s a brief one. It’s only later, as Black Jonas takes his hat and excuses himself, that Miss Carla speaks up. “Now it ain’t none of my business, but a word of kindness to you. Be careful who you trust in this town.”
Black Jonas nods. “Thank you kindly.”
That night, Black Jonas cleans his old six-shooter. He digs it out from the bottom of a saddlebag, where it’s gone untouched for the better part of a year. The gun is cold against the bag’s sun-warm leather, and seeing it again brings a tight, squeezing sensation to Black Jonas’s heart.
He flips it onto the bed, then roots around for his cartridge pouch. The gun is in bad shape. Tarnish cups the firing cylinder and the underside of the barrel. But the cylinder still spins, and the grip still fits his hand just so.
He cleans and oils the thing, his thoughts far away. He dreams of finally getting the money from Doone, of buying that ticket. He thinks of getting on that train, seeing the mainland again. Seeing his family. But when he switches off the light, with the pistol fresh and loaded on the nightstand, his heart feels cold as canalwater.
“Is it eight already?” says the sheriff when Black Jonas shows up the next morning, cleanly shaven. The clock behind her reads seven fifty-nine. “Well, I’ll be damned.” She jumps to her feet, grabs a ring of keys from a nail on the wall. “Let’s get it over with then.”
She leads Black Jonas out the door, scrunching her face in the sunlight and brisk wind. She dips into a narrow alley, then down another. Black Jonas follows in silence.
They emerge on the far side of the district, next to an imposing building with a sturdy front. The sheriff finagles up a large, bronze key and unlocks the door.
“This is a prison,” says Black Jonas.
“That’s right,” says the sheriff. “Sam Doone’s hearth and home for seven years now.” She scuffs her boots on the doormat and enters.
Black Jonas follows, pushing down the heavy feeling in his chest. She leads him down a corridor and a flight of stairs.
Doone is sleeping when they find him, lying in a lump of dirty blankets on a cot at the far corner of the basement floor. Most of the other cells are empty. The air has an unhealthy, saturated smell to it.
“Morning, Sam,” calls the sheriff, with neighborly cheer.
“Morning,” mumbles the lump of blankets.
“Come over here. You got a guest.”
Sam Doone rubs his eyes and sits up.
The first thing Black Jonas thinks is that Doone doesn’t look too bad for a prisoner of seven years. He’s still slightly chubby around the wrists, still has something of the old charm in his movements. But he smells of old cork sandals, and his eyes are shallow and seem focused on some invisible thing four feet in front of him.
“Hello,” says Doone. “Do I know you?”
“Doone,” says Black Jonas lightly. “It’s me.”
Doone sucks in a breath. “Well,” he says, foundering. “Well.” He reaches out a shaking hand, and Black Jonas can see that Doone’s eyes are teary. Doone sticks his arm out through the bars and his fingers find Black Jonas’s. They hold each other, their hands a quivering knot, until slowly, awkwardly, the years melt away and their left hands add their warmth to the handshake as well.
“I can’t believe you had the guts to come back,” says Doone, after the sheriff leaves them. (“Thirty minutes, no exceptions,” she said, raising her thick eyebrows for emphasis.)
“Doone,” says Black Jonas. “I gotta say it first. I came back for my payment.”
Doone coughs. He withdraws his hands and folds them against himself, behind the bars. “Well, you took an awful risk coming back for it. Don’t you know who runs this town now? Jimmy DeRoi, that’s who.”
Black Jonas didn’t know that.
Doone whistles. “If Jimmy DeRoi knows you’re back...”
“I’m not back, Doone,” says Black Jonas. “I’m here for my money, and then I’m leaving.”
But even as he says it, he realizes the futility of his words. Doone was once top dog in Benessa, a man who tricked and bullied his way to the very top of the day’s tricksters and bullies. But he’s not that man anymore.
“You don’t have the money, do you?” Black Jonas says softly.
“Now,” says Doone, “don’t go jumping to conclusions.”
“Damnit, Doone!” He feels the old anger flaring up. “You hired me to do a job. I done it. I chalked up everyone you asked. I burned my bridges. Now I’ve lain low for twenty years and I haven’t heard a peep or seen a cent out of you. Don’t tell me I done it for nothing.”
Doone gets real quiet.
Doone spreads his hands, as if it that answers the question. He turns, and slowly sits back down on his filthy cot. “You still remember how it was, back then? Just you and me. We made a great pair, didn’t we?”
“Stop dodging the question, Doone.”
“Oh, come on. They still talk about us, you know that? We were legends. Sam Doone and Gentle Jo—”
Black Jonas slams his hand into the bars, and the screech of metal on stone echoes up and down the hall. For a full thirty seconds, the jail is absolutely silent.
When Doone finally speaks, his tone is adolescent. “Come on, buddy,” he says. “The game ended.”
“You know. Scraping gold from the ocean vents. Manganese and sulphur. Scrambling to get a piece of the pie, getting rich and powerful alongside everyone else.”
“It wasn’t a game, Doone.”
“I remember walking out along the harbor one day and seeing pleesaurs and ickysaurs and what-have-you-saurs and their riders, just swimming free in that pristine ocean—I felt this fantastic sense of possibility. Of horizons opening up. But it ended. There ain’t nothing left on those vents anymore, and when the mining dried up, you dinosaur riders weren’t needed no more either.” He looks up at Black Jonas, and again Black Jonas notices the shallow, milky expression in his eyes.
“You make me sick,” says Black Jonas.
Doone just shrugs and gives Black Jonas a kind of watery, encouraging look. He’s silent for a moment, and then, as if he knows he’s pushing his luck, says: “You know, this town’s still got life in it yet. They’re building that new interpelago rail out to Durango, right through here. You seen Central Station yet? Steam trains running on a floating railway, can you believe it?”
Black Jonas shakes his head, eyes on the ground, his fingers still tight around the bars.
In the dim light, a look of understanding finally flits over Doone’s face. “Say,” he says, and for the first time in a long time he sounds truly hesitant. “You— you weren’t planning to buy a ticket on that train, were you? Where? All the way back to the continent?”
Black Jonas nods.
He nods again.
“You still got people back there, then? Family?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
At that moment a realization steals over Black Jonas, like a scratchy wool blanket. It’s all over now, for real. Doone was his last shot, and Doone’s in prison. He hasn’t got the money. There’s nothing more for Black Jonas here, nothing to show for the long days of travel, the nights spent sleeping on Essie’s back out there on the open ocean. Without Doone’s money, there’s no ticket. Without a ticket, there’s no going back.
“Freedom and glory,” says Doone.
“Freedom and glory. That’s what the old songs promised us, remember? The golden frontier, the open sea.”
“What about them?”
“Even considering how things turned out, the ride was worth something, wasn’t it?” He gets comfortable on his cot, then looks up at Black Jonas, through bars, and smiles.
It’s the final straw for Black Jonas. He pushes away from the bars. “I gotta go. Enjoy your life, Samuel Doone,” he says, turning his back.
“You take care, Gentle Jonas.”
When Black Jonas rounds the corner, he almost collides with the sheriff.
“Everything alright?” she asks.
“Fine. Good day, sheriff,” says Black Jonas as he ascends the steps to ground level.
But she’s got a funny look on her face, and Black Jonas can’t help but worry a little.
“Listen,” says Black Jonas to Miss Carla, over supper. It’s stewed octopus, over a bed of barley. “I thank you kindly for your hospitality, but I’m afraid I’ll be leaving town first thing tomorrow.” He eyes the moon outside, looming two fingers above the horizon.
“Oh?” says Miss Carla.
“And I’ll thank you more if you do me a favor and tell anyone who might ask about me that I’m already gone.”
Miss Carla chews and swallows before answering. “And who might be doing the asking?”
Faces flash through Black Jonas’s mind: the blue-eyed fellow from the saloon. The sheriff. Jimmy DeRoi.
“No one in particular,” he says. “I know it sounds queer. But will you do it for me?”
Miss Carla leans over, smiles knowingly, and gives Black Jonas a friendly push on the shoulder. “You know, pleeboys get a bad rap round here, but I can tell you’re one of the good ones. Heart in the right place and everything. So don’t you worry about it.”
There’s an awkward silence as Black Jonas polishes off another bite, then inspects his spoon, front and back. He looks up, finally, and smiles. “I’ll be out of your hair first thing tomorrow,” he says.
“Anyone wants to get rowdy around here, they’ve got to get through me,” Miss Carla says, slapping her hip. “And there’s a lot of me to get through.”
Black Jonas spends the evening troubled. He knows he has to leave tomorrow, and the earlier the better, but he’s got nowhere to go now, no destination, no home. Truth is, Miss Carla’s wrong. He ain’t one of the good ones. Even after washing his face he feels grimy, the same way he felt touching the cold bars of Doone’s prison cell. His pistol still sits on the nightstand, loaded. In a way, the grime’s never left him.
Black Jonas falls asleep late, but he doesn’t rest for long. He awakens to a banging on the door.
He shakes the sleep from his head, takes six-shooter in hand, and moves to the door to unlatch it.
“Yes?” says Black Jonas, the pistol behind him.
He finds Miss Carla in a nightgown and slippers.
“Oh, honey, you’ve got to get up. The house is on fire.”
Black Jonas’s heart dives. “I see,” he says. He grabs his saddlebag and follows Miss Carla’s swift waddle down the hall. She grabs her own bag from a bedroom as they pass. When they enter the sitting room, Black Jonas feels a wash of heat from above. Smoke is billowing from a second-story landing.
They duck out the front door, into the chill of night. “FIRE!” calls Miss Carla into the darkness, pacing quickly toward a nearby house. She raps on the window. “FIRE! SOUND THE BELLS!”
Black Jonas scans the promenade; his heart stops for a moment when he sees Essie’s empty mooring post. But then he remembers that he gave her free rein for the night; she’ll be lurking somewhere nearby, hunting for food. He takes large steps toward the canal.
“Nobody’s answering,” says Miss Carla, toddling back toward him. “Why is nobody answering?” The night air is cold, and Black Jonas can see that Miss Carla is trembling.
He stops her with a hand on the shoulder. “Miss Carla,” says Black Jonas, soft as he can. “I got to leave. Right now. I do hope you understand.”
“But why—” Miss Carla begins. But she figures it out quick enough. Her eyes flick up at Black Jonas, and for a split second he catches a real sad look on her face; a look of genuine regret. “My,” she mutters, staring at the sky. “My.”
Black Jonas glances around. “Listen to me,” he says, speaking quickly. “You ain’t done anything wrong, you understand? You ain’t involved. I’m going to take Essie and leave now, and when I’m gone, you tell them anything they want, hear? Tell ‘em I’m headed for Sweetwater County. It’s the truth. You got that?”
Miss Carla nods.
Black Jonas turns and crosses the wide promenade, his steps heavy. The air smells of smoke. The old ball of guilt festers in his belly: he knows it’s best for everyone if he disappears quickly as possible. Maybe someday he’ll come back and make it up to Miss Carla. But he knows it isn’t likely. He’s got too many somedays lined up inside him already.
He stops at the water’s edge and brings out Essie’s calling whistle. He lifts the reed to his lips. But before he blows it, someone wolf-whistles behind him.
“Just stop yerself right there, Gentle Jonas.”
Black Jonas spins, every hair on his neck standing up. The first thing he sees is Miss Carla, her arms pinioned by two sleazy-looking men. The second thing he sees is Jimmy DeRoi, strolling up behind them with his hand on his pistol butt.
“Take one more step toward that water, and I’ll shoot the lady.”
Black Jonas hesitates for an instant. He lifts his palms slowly into the air. Why her?! he wants to scream.
“Drop the reed,” says Jimmy.
Jimmy DeRoi flicks the butt of his cigarette away. He smiles like a cat at dinner. “See, I knew threatening a lady would work on you. You’re a gentleman. Always have been.” He takes leisurely steps to cross the distance between them, then gets his face right up to Black Jonas’s. His voice is low, confidential. “Course, that is why Tom and Lottie trusted you, when all you were was a SNAKE!”
Black Jonas flinches from the spittle that accompanies the last word. He sees, over Jimmy’s shoulder, that Miss Carla has gone pure white.
Black Jonas swallows. He speaks calmly, evenly, with his eyes locked on Miss Carla. “I’m sorry, Jimmy. I really am.” He swallows. “I’m sorry for what I did to Tom and Lottie. I don’t got no better excuse. And Lord knows every night for the past twenty years I’ve hated myself for it.” He motions at Miss Carla with his chin. “Let the woman go.”
Jimmy DeRoi laughs. “Sentimental shit like that,” he says, shaking his head. He draws his pistol, plays with the hammer, levels it at Black Jonas. “Not going to work on me, Gentle Jonas. You hear?”
Black Jonas swallows again. Jimmy moves back close, and Black Jonas smells the cigarette-sour on his breath.
Jimmy frees Black Jonas’s pistol from its holster, then backs up a couple steps, holding both guns. “Now a gentleman like you doesn’t want to die yelling and screaming, does he? So I’ll give you better than you deserve. One clean shot. A clean fall in the water. And then we’re even for Tom and Lottie. But you make one false move, and I’ll have you beaten till you beg for death. You hear me?”
Black Jonas shuts his eyes. His heart is pumping in his ears. The night wind is cold against his back, and he knows he should be planning something: an escape route, an attack path, a way to free Miss Carla, something. But all he feels is an indescribable weariness. Even after all these years, he’s still hurting people. An innocent woman’s home is burning up because of him. Maybe it would be better for everyone if he just went quietly, like Jimmy said.
And would it be so much of a loss, really? He left home so long ago. He had a brother, and a little niece. Suzie. But no, she was too young, she wouldn’t remember him.
It might even be nice to die in the ocean, Black Jonas thinks. After all, it was where he wasted his life.
When he opens his eyes again, he’s looking down the barrel of Jimmy DeRoi’s gun.
“Made your peace?” says Jimmy. “Good.” He cocks the hammer.
“NO!” screams Miss Carla, struggling. “You damn, dirty—” Her arm wrenches free. Her elbow catches one of the men straight on the chin, and he lets out a pained “uuugh.”
Something happens inside Black Jonas. It’s as if the sight of Miss Carla fighting snaps something back to life in his chest, some prehistoric part that still wants to fight, to struggle, to live.
Jimmy’s eyes flicker sideways, just for an instant. And Black Jonas’s arm whips up, slamming into Jimmy’s elbow like a sledgehammer. He yanks Jimmy’s arm down and hits him square in the face, moving in too close for Jimmy to fire—he squeezes Jimmy’s gun hand with iron fingers, tightening his grip until Jimmy squeals and releases. Then Black Jonas spins and, with his own pistol in his other hand—BLAM. BLAM.—the two goons fall, bullets in their foreheads.
Jimmy shrieks and pushes off of Black Jonas. He flings his hands up immediately, backing up as quick as he can. “H-hey,” Jimmy says. “Wait. Wait.”
“Don’t you move,” says Black Jonas. “Stop, Jimmy.” But Jimmy keeps on backpedalling.
And suddenly an icy chill goes through Black Jonas. Jimmy is backing up straight toward the canal. And there’s a shadow behind him.
It happens too quickly for Black Jonas to react. A giant, snakelike head whips out of the canal and chomps down on Jimmy’s left thigh. Jimmy screams. In one fluid, powerful movement, Essie yanks him into the water.
“Stop! Stop! Essie!” yells Black Jonas, dropping the guns and scrabbling on the ground for her whistle.
But by the time he finds it, it’s too late. The screaming has stopped. The thrashing is over, and a strange quiet fills the air. Black Jonas kneels on the promenade, stunned.
His hands are shaking, and his fist is throbbing where he punched Jimmy. He’s murdered again. Twice. And Essie ripped up Jimmy DeRoi.
And she did it to protect him.
The only sound then is the snap of burning wood. The smell of char and burning fabrics is everywhere, and a wall of heat scalds the back of his neck.
“Pleeboy,” says Miss Carla, coming up behind him. “Pleeboy. When they find Jimmy dead like this, they’ll kill us.”
Black Jonas doesn’t know what to say. Essie emerges from the water, and Miss Carla shrieks. But Essie just bobs there, grinning.
Black Jonas goes to Essie, touches the top of her sandpapery head. “You shouldn’t’ve done that,” he whispers. “He was my problem, not yours. I was supposed to take care of it.”
“I know, I know.” Black Jonas touches his head to hers, his still-wet tears mixing with her seawater. “I shouldn’t’ve. I shouldn’t’ve thought about leaving you.”
Miss Carla creeps up cautiously. “It didn’t—it didn’t eat him, did it?”
“No,” says Black Jonas. “Essie wouldn’t do that. Would you, Essie?”
Essie exhales forcefully.
Black Jonas studies Miss Carla. There’s blood flecks on her face and fear in her eyes. Behind her, sparks shoot into the night sky from the conflagration consuming her home. The surrounding houses observe in silence—nobody has rung the fire bell still.
Black Jonas flattens his palm against Essie’s neck, urges her closer to shore. He grabs her reins.
“Have you ever ridden a pleesaur before?” he says to Miss Carla.
She stares at him. “You’ve got to be funning me.”
Black Jonas steps onto Essie’s back and plants himself in the saddle. “If they find us, they’ll kill us. Right?”
“I’m not getting on that thing! It just ate a man!”
“I know,” says Black Jonas quietly. His eyes flick over her shoulder. “But looks like you need a new hole to hide in.”
Miss Carla hesitates only a few seconds. She glances back at her lodge, watches the flames leap and crackle. She clutches her bag, and her mouth forms a determined line. Then, reaching out to Black Jonas for balance, she totters onto Essie’s wide back, swinging her arms. She manages to stay upright by grabbing a saddlehorn on Essie’s rump.
Black Jonas gives the reins a snap, and Essie surges away from shore.
A long ‘v’ trails behind them in the water, highlighted by the orange light of flame. It’s only when they reach the outskirts of town, at Main Canal, that the fire bells clatter to life. Black Jonas and Miss Carla see the pump-skiffs of the fire brigade, clanging away at full volume, race down the waterway ahead of them.
Black Jonas pulls to the side of the canal and watches them pass.
“Where do you want me to bring you?” says Black Jonas, a while later. They are out on the open sea, Essie chugging along like a rough black island, and Black Jonas hasn’t yet decided what to do. When they find a good town for Miss Carla, he reckons, he’ll stay a while and help her set up a new life. Somewhere safe. And after that? Maybe he’ll move on to the next town. Somewhere far from Benessa, where maybe he can take another small job. Another tiny step toward home.
“Doesn’t matter. Wherever.” Miss Carla has found a bit of space to stretch out, facing backward. She seems comfortable, watching the waves fan out behind them.
“Don’t you got someplace to go?” Black Jonas asks.
Miss Carla laughs. “Lost touch with them years ago, when I moved out to Benessa. Wouldn’t know where to find them even if I wanted to. I told you, when a woman’s husband dies round here, she becomes nothing.”
“Say,” says Black Jonas. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. If you been married, aren’t you supposed to be Mizz Carla? Ain’t miss for young girls?”
“Oh, honey,” she says. “When you get older, you’ll see. The names you choose for yourself are the most important of all.”
Black Jonas thinks about it. Essie chugs along for a while in silence.
“So what say we head to the next island?” Black Jonas says. “Essie and me can take you that way. If it strikes your fancy, we’ll stay awhile and help you get settled. If not, you’re welcome to keep going with us, maybe take a gander at the next. That sound alright to you, Miss?”
“That sounds just fine, pleeboy.”
And there’s something about the sunlight that morning that glints off the waves like liquid silver. It reminds Black Jonas of precious, beaten metals, dredged from the depths of the ocean. It reminds him of the sheen off his six-shooter, of the old promise of freedom and glory.
He gives one more thought to Benessa County, of the abandoned warehouses, the mooring bays, the corrals. Built for a different age. He is glad that part of his life is over. He knows he will never go back.
He turns to Miss Carla. “You know, you don’t have to keep calling me pleeboy,” he says, adjusting the brim of his hat.
“Starting now, you can just call me Jonas.”