Everything went well until the townsfolk began shooting.
Franco, Horace, Jim, and Augie came out of the bank with three saddlebags burdened with cash and coins, and their faces loaded with smiles. They didn’t bother with bandannas since their wanted posters, which bore no actual resemblance to them, hadn’t made it this far west.
Danny, the youngest of the gang, waited with the horses. His eyes lit at the take. It was more than any of them expected in a two-bit town like Sanderton, but they weren’t the type of gentlemen to complain if the spoils had been less.
In their excitement and surprise, the men became careless. They ignored their surroundings, something they had never done before, either in a bank, saloon, or bordello.
“Listen to that, boys!” Augie rattled his coat. The pockets sang with coins. His green teeth on wide display, he all but jumped on his steed.
The first shot came from the alley beside the barber shop. It was a rifle pop and it sheared off the top of Augie’s head, kicking his hat into the air to turn flips with the crown of his skull. His horse bolted and his body sat in the saddle part way down the street before it toppled. The mush behind his slack face slopped onto the dusty lane with silver dollars clattering from his pockets.
A tight second of silence lifted when more shots cracked from windows and doorways. Flecks of fire and smoke erupted in hideaways before concussive thunder dogged the heavens. Bullets hailed and zipped. Windows shattered, posts were gored in a storm of splinters.
Neither Franco nor Jim knew where to aim. They waved their pistols wildly as their horses stirred filthy clouds. Jim was knocked off his mount, clean and pure, by an invisible punch to the chest. His saddlebag was still slung over his shoulder, his frantic hands clenched dirty dollars as he bled out on the ground.
Danny’s horse reared. He fumbled with the reins, but the bucking horse tossed him. The painted mare took a bullet to the throat as it kicked its forelegs. It collapsed forward and rolled hoof over head.
Bullets blasted craters in the ground. Dank clods exploded around the bandits in the maelstrom as if the earth itself was taking potshots.
Horace rode out, slumped in the saddle. A searing piece of lead cut across the meat of his shoulder as he raced through the gauntlet. He fired blind until the hammer clicked empty chambers.
Franco reached and caught a dazed Danny by the arm. He pulled the boy up behind him. As the kid swiveled, a bullet nicked his ear an instant before he heard the report of the six-shooter that fired it.
Franco spurred the horse to keep Horace in sight, balancing the reins in one hand, his gun in the other. He shot at anything that moved, anyone that scurried. His burning trigger finger sent a slug smashing into a man’s nose who peeped from the stacked bales on a hay wagon.
Danny held tight. His collar funneled the coppery blood from his ear down his shirt and glued it to his chest and him to Franco’s back.
The horse faltered and swerved. It was all Franco could do to keep the beast going in the direction he wanted. Danny clamped his eyes closed, felt the boss fighting the frightened stallion.
The horse pounded a tattoo on the plain. The boy waited, prayed, to be free from the chaos of air crowded with booms and choked with gunpowder and slaughter.
Sanderton was a shimmering dot behind them by the time Franco and Danny rode side by side with Horace. The kid chanced a parting glance and could see strains of smoke still hovering like thunderheads above the town. There was no sign of a posse giving chase, which eased his nerves, but not the sting of his ear.
They rode even with the brute until their horses were covered in thick layers of foam and the sun had left the peak of the sky. They slowed their tired mounts to a trot as the trail they cut wound among the buttes and mesas. Franco called for a rest when the clear stream they followed slithered into the canyons.
“Where are we?” Danny asked. He scrubbed the tender area around his ear with the cold water. He couldn’t see much of his reflection for watching minnows school and scatter, but he could tell the injury wasn’t as bad as it felt. He still had an ear, and for that he was thankful.
“Here,” Horace sneered. His shoulder was stiff and it made him angrier each time he attempted to stretch away the pain.
Franco reclined against the rocks in the shade, his hat pulled low. “He’s right. And it’s better ‘an anywheres else,” he said. They escaped with two saddlebags of loot, that was his silver lining.
“They probably gonna wait to dark to jump us,” Horace said. He ripped his sleeve off and exposed the deep horizontal gash across his shoulder. “Sons-uh-bitches,” he seethed. He plied his meaty fingers to the raw meat, closing it only to have it gape open, again, like the mouth of a dead fish. “Sons-uh-bitches.”
Danny refilled their canteen (only one survived the commotion and massacre) then huddled in the shadows near Franco. “Can you hear outta that thing?” Franco asked him.
“Yeah,” the boy answered. He touched his sore ear. “It hurts awful bad.”
“And I lost my hat!” Horace stomped.
Franco eyed the big man as he picked at his arm. “How you doing?”
The behemoth stretched his neck until it popped, veins bulged in thick cords. “I’ll live.” He slapped his shoulder, shook his arm. “It works.” The wound wasn’t bleeding, but the flesh was bright red in places and burned black in others.
The kid watched Franco reload his pistol. “We’ll ride ‘til dark. See where it takes us. Put enough ground ‘tween us and who’er might be gunnin’ after us.”
Once the horses were refreshed, they prepared to ride out. Horace secured his saddlebag of money to his saddle. “I hope they come,” he said. “Jus’ let’em,” his hands itched into boulder-sized fists. He cut his bloodshot eyes to the kid. “What about him? He ain’t ridin’ wit me.”
Franco shrugged. “Guess he’ll ride with me, ‘til I tire of him.”
“He ain’t got no hoss,” Horace flexed his sore arm. “I says cut him loose. He’s dead weight.”
“We’ll see.” Franco climbed on his horse with a groan, his spurs jangled on his boots. He helped Danny up. He told the brute: “Let’s get gone ‘fore your stink draws the buzzards.”
Horace huffed. He fingered the grit in his wound before climbing into the saddle.
The caution they had abandoned in the backwater town had returned. They maneuvered their mounts leisurely down stream, eyes keen on the sunlit cliffs and the lingering shadows on the red canyon walls. They tracked any sound their ears caught among the slow clomp of horse hooves and gurgle of the widening creek: a stray rock tumbling from the bluffs, the screech of a hawk across the cloudless sky.
They emerged from the cloistered valley onto a gritty-soiled plain of scrub grass and space. The sun battered its own arc as the men, still vigilant, rode with more urgency. They stopped only long enough to have a sip from the canteen or a drink from the smooth flowing river they kept on their right as long as they could. Fearing attacks, or any attention, from native tribes that made their homes along the banks of the ancient currents, they beat a vulnerable path across the rolling waves of grassland.
Just as the sun touched the outline of distant mountains, Horace pulled up short on the reins.
“I see it,” Franco said before his expansive partner could stitch words together.
At the feet of the silhouetted mountains in the orange evening light was the unmistakable jagged etchings of buildings.
A town lay in wait.
“If people ask, we was ambushed,” Franco said.
No one answered, they would naturally do as ordered.
The boss prodded his horse. “Let’s knock on the door, see who’s home.”
Horace dug a plug of tobacco from his pocket.
“Courteous and Christian like, fellas,” Franco reminded them as he led the way.
Horace grunted and spat. A brown gob of spit hung on his chin.
The men ambled on as a smooth prairie breeze rustled at the wild grass and shrubs grown over the road into the town. The riders never would have noticed it had they not stumbled upon the path by accident.
As the distance disappeared, the waiting town grew to reveal shambling buildings pocked with loose and broken boards that hung brittle and bleached, polished pale with dust. The wide lane through the heart of the hamlet was littered with tumbleweeds. Abandoned wagons had begun to crumble under the scorching heat. The skeleton of a horse, bones long picked clean, was still hitched to one. A well sat in the town center, a bucket swung circles from the rope above its mouth.
Doorways yawned, windows stared wide awake as if surprised at the unexpected intrusion. Spiders tended their webs and left the brush of wind, the chitter of insects, and the vacant call of a bird on the wing to fill the high lonesome silence of the ghost town.
A crooked sign with chipped painted letters stood tall among a bevy of dead brush. It greeted the newly arrived trio: WELCOME TO RELIANT.
“Don’t think nobody’s home,” Danny said.
Horace peered at the boy. His flaky lips tucked up in a sneer. “Perfect place to bury dead weight.”
They tied their horses at the post in front of the forlorn Swayback Saloon. The troughs were full with water topped with a thick layer of scum. Louvered doors snored on tarnished hinges, unable to contain the damp gloom that waited within.
Franco’s hands stilled the muttering swing doors. “Hallo!” he called and Danny tensed.
The brute flexed his fists, watched for anyone to come charging.
“Gotta drink ready?” Franco yelled to the deserted tavern.
The horses bristled, but Reliant lay quiet.
“I’m a-look around,” Horace said and started across the street. His hand rested on the butt of his pistol.
Franco pushed through the swinging doors, his spurs jangled on the creaking floorboards his boots playing out a hollow echo.
Danny followed him inside. “Hey, F-Franco-”
The boss had already hopped the bar. He examined the cobweb-coated bottles that lined the wall. “These damn things are full,” he said. He picked one and pulled the cork free.
Danny heard the liquor pouring down the desperado’s throat like water racing down a rusty pump.
Amber liquid sloshed Franco’s face. “Sweet Mary and the angels.” His eyes moistened as they roamed over all the bottles. “I’ve died and gone to Heaven.”
“Somebody may live nearby,” Danny said. His legs felt anxious. “We may not should stay here too long, Franco. Maybe we shouldn’t-”
“Shut up,” Franco chuckled. “Look it here,” he picked up another bottle. “If anyone was around, they’d done took everything. Stupid kid,” he popped another cork. “Scared.” He drank to drown his laughter.
The kid studied the vacant saloon: the dust laden boar head mounted behind the bar, the tables with empty glasses, broken chairs, creased playing cards scattered. It was a refuge for shadows, a port-of-call for specters.
Yes, Danny was uneasy, but he wouldn’t admit to scared.
Franco swigged from a bottle while he started up the stairs. The moth-eaten red velvet runner hushed his boot heels.
“If we’re lucky,” said Franco, “they left a stock of women, too.”
Danny raced to join him on the landing. He didn’t want to be left alone with the boar’s lifeless marble eyes watching him, or become caught with the other bugs in the silken webbing strung between its tusks.
“Line’em up and get’em out!” the boss yelled as he kicked open doors. Whiskey sloshed from the two bottles he gripped, he took long gulps from each.
The kid lingered and surveyed the rooms. The mattresses were lumpy to look at them, dented from considerable use. A corset hung on the foot-board in one boudoir, a dress draped over a privacy screen in another. Some beds were neatly made, the coverlets tucked, the pillows full and waiting. Most were a chaos of twisted blankets and tangled sheets. A pair of boots lay akimbo on the floor of the last room, presumably discarded in a rush of excitement and forgotten.
Franco sighed and fell back on the bed, his body hitting it like a fist waylaying a side of beef. He was able to prevent his drinks from spilling, but not his salt streaked hat. “Well,” he sighed, “at least we got our pick of the rooms.” He looked up at the kid. “Did I see a hotel down the ways?”
Danny nodded. “I think so.”
He dropped his head on the bed. “We’re gonna live like kings, boy. Like goddamn kings.”
Danny crossed his arms in the hallway. Through the grime streaks on the window of the corner room he could make out the stretch of prairie on the other side. The flatland went on almost forever from this speck of a town until it met the hazy curve of the mountain range.
The cry of the saloon doors downstairs made the boy’s jaw clench. Boots stomped the boards. Franco was up, gun drawn, his liquor bottles gurgling as they spilled on the bed.
“Din-nuh!” Horace bellowed below.
Franco shoved his pistol back in his holster. “That big bastard,” he muttered.
“They just come right out while I was pinchin’ one off,” Horace explained. He tossed two dead rabbits on the bar. He leaned in the boy’s face. “I got’em by the necks and snap’em like twigs.”
Danny unconscious rubbed at his own throat.
Horace grabbed one of Franco’s half empty bottles and emptied it in the cavernous well of his mouth. He belched and tossed the green decanter, it shattered when it met the wall. “Killed’em then finished my bidness.”
No one ordered the kid to clean and cook the rabbits, it was simply understood. The Swayback Saloon was equipped with a wood stove in its unused kitchen. It even had a can of matches, chopped wood, and kindling waiting patiently for use. They would chance the smoke for the sizzle.
Horace tended to the horses, fetching fresh water from the town well after a personal taste test for safety.
Franco explored the town and kept sentry for anything riding on the four winds. The boss raided a doctor’s hutch for yellowed bandages. He knocked the dust off the big man’s scored shoulder, but Horace refused the ministrations. He saved the rest for tending the kid’s ear. The kid was happy to get it.
Danny was quick and efficient, accustomed to preparing meals on the move. When they sat to eat, complete with plates and utensils, even though they wouldn’t use them, the sun was firmly entrenched behind the mountains and the tangerine light had diffused to a muted purple.
A candle, found among a horde in the kitchen, lit the faces of the trio as they devoured the rabbits and sucked the slick bones. Gnashing and chewing replaced conversation. They slumped full, but thirsty, always thirsty. A bottle of rye was passed around the table. The men gulped greedily, Danny sipped. Soon another decanter was demanded.
As the candle flame strove for its Corinthian capital, Franco and Horace volleyed tales of banks robbed, men shot, and women rousted. Danny picked at his ill-fitting bandage around his head. He listened, alternately entranced by their bravado stories and distracted by the gloom that deepened outside. A somber night had spread like eagles’ wings, both infinite and finite, as threadbare fingers of mist, glowing under a half-asleep moon, felt their way along the main street.
“Where do y’all think all the people went?” the kid asked. He looked out on the horses, their friendly bustle small in the desolation. “Think Indians got’em? Ain’t there Comanche ‘round here?”
Franco blew his nose on his shirt sleeve. “No Comanche or any reds got these folks.” His decanter tried to tip when he set it on the table. He caught it with a sluggish palm. “Place went bust. Mining town. You seen mountains out yonder. The mines quit givin’, and Reliant quit livin’, boy.”
Horace snorted. His head swiveled on the tree trunk of his neck. “Mayhaps the Devil.”
Danny slid back into his chair. “The Devil?”
The big man grinned in the candle flame. The half light couldn’t hide his tobacco stained lips. “The Mornin’ Star hisself. Where I’m from, they say the Devil come down from the hills to eat. Take babies out the crib and eat’em. Eat’em whole.”
The kid stiffened.
“He probably come from those mountains there. I bet he’s up there now chewin’ on these people.”
“If you believe that,” Franco said, “you’re as dumb as him.”
Horace laughed and spat his wad of chew on the floor.
“We’ll stay here awhile, I do believe,” Franco stared out the window front. “Nobody been here in forever. Nobody cares. There’s a dry good store yonder, full of tinned food. It could feed us for ya Lord knows how long.”
Franco let the last drops from the decanter dot his white-coated tongue. From his pocket he fished a gold watch that had not always been his. He ran his course thumb down its smooth face, closed the case and returned it to its confines.
“Pick a spot,” he said, “here, the hotel, the jail, the beds are all the same. Sleep in the damn church down there if it makes ya feel better.” The boss smiled at the boy: “I told ya we’d live like kings, bucko.”
They stood watch lest inattentive attitudes put them to work pushing up daisies as it did their former cohorts. The boy took the first shift.
“Wake me ‘bout midnight or so,” Franco instructed Danny. “I’ll keep guard ‘til dawn. I think ol’ Horace needs shut-eye. That arm’s lookin’ might peculiar.” He gave the kid his gold watch. “Don’t lose it.” Danny held it with awe.
Before bedding down, Franco poured half a bottle of whiskey on the brute’s injury. The wound hissed and bubbled. The edges of the skin had turned black, the heart of it a sickly crimson with a pus-fueled head. Welts rose around it.
“How’s it?” asked Franco.
“Fine,” Horace replied. Dark circles shaded his eyes. For all his sunburn, his complexion had grayed.
The boss looked at him a moment too long.
“What?” Horace narrowed the gorges of his eyebrows. “You gonna shoot me like a hoss? I said I’s fine.”
“So ya are.”
Horace was snoring in the corner room upstairs as soon as his eyelids shut. Franco chose the room at the front of the hall, the better to hear any alarm the boy raised and, also, to distance himself from the locomotive down the corridor. They slept with their boots on, Franco’s minus the spurs. Their gunbelts hung on the bedposts within easy reach.
Danny pulled a chair to the shimmering front window. Reliant remained dead save for the snort of horses and the phantasm of fog. The cotton mist hovered above the street. No prairie headwinds dispersed it or bullied a tumbleweed into its congregation. It moved of its own accord, like the tenth plague: wove among the horses, curled against planks, slunk through knotholes, busted buildings.
His head swung left and right like the pendulum of the tallcase clock hung in the great hall of the orphanage that had imprisoned his adolescence. He had mostly escaped the torments of that place years ago, and he would be just as thrilled when he put the dust of Reliant to his heels.
Alternately, the kid figured he was being foolish about this town. If Franco said it was their oasis, Danny had no position to disagree. The boss knew best about such matters.
Yet, Franco had not been wholly correct about “clodhoppin’” Sadderton. Robbing its bank was easy, as predicted; the getaway, the boy recollected, had been similar to digging for water under the outhouse. But things went above one’s bend some days.
Danny checked Franco’s watch often enough to stop time. He held it like a newborn, careful not to smudge or scratch the glass, or break the case. The singular question of an owl, or a pensive coyote call which rolled fresh off the plains, made the boy’s heart stutter out his body. In those moments, he snapped the watch in the clam shell of his hands until the jitters passed.
A quarter after midnight, the boy’s eyes began to droop. He followed the runner up the stairs in the dark with measured steps.
Danny would have fallen had Franco not caught him by the shirt and swung him to safety.
“Awful jumpy, son.”
“Sorry,” Danny said.
“Don’t be sorry for bein’ afraid.” His voice floated in the abyss between Horace’s long strokes of sawed logs. “The skitters shake us all sometimes.”
“I’m proper now.” Danny squared his shoulders although the boss couldn’t see it.
“Head on to shut-eye.” Franco, his spurs still in the room, descended the stairs in silence and free of fatigue.
Franco sloughed off the Swayback. He hadn’t slept but a wink in the matchbook room. Walls choked him if he tarried too long indoors ever since his stay at Johnson’s Island during the war. He needed the outdoors to breathe the way fish need water to live. He reclined in a chair on the porch. With his feet propped on the railing and his pistol cradled on his lap, he hummed a few bars of Home! Sweet Home! to soothe the horses.
It wasn’t long before Franco’s eyes gained a little lead. The damp air was a welcome lullaby after the wildfire day. His mind rested, no longer busy building plans for the money stowed under the bed, no longer thinking where to break for next— all that could wait, at least until morning or the next day.
He holstered his gun and stood. When he stretched, his body sounded like trees bowing under winter ice.
Franco strolled the main street of his kingdom. Reliant belonged to him. Every nail, every hammer in the livery, every forgotten memento and discarded petticoat was his, for as long as he chose. The possibilities the town held tickled his brain.
Outsiders would come, eventually. It was inevitable. Those interlopers might stay, they might pass through. He could handle it either way, no matter if the strangers wore a badge or not.
This could be a goldmine, a place not just to hole up, but to live.
Franco found himself at the far end of town where a once white fence bordered the church. The low fog that frolicked around him wove tapestries with the headstones staggered among the churchyard. He pulled a handful of weeds which had grown to bunt the crosspieces and pickets. Blooms of heath aster decorated the bouquet.
One of the horses whinnied and coughed. The fog, a gossamer sidewinder, rippled down the length of the lane.
The boss tossed the weeds and wildflowers, balled together.
Franco spun, heels dug, gun drawn and leveled. His finger had the trigger a hair from firing.
The church stared absent with its crooked steeple and a scarf of fog encircling its shoulders.
“Who’s there?” Franco demanded.
Silence overflowed. Even the midnight serenade of the crickets had tamed at the boss’s outburst.
He focused his eyes into the gauzy fog, the black night bled through its fragile threads. Amid the decayed teeth of the tombstones, Franco spotted a shape. A person, a man, or nothing, it was hard to tell it was gone so quick.
“Come out, damn ya!” he jabbed his gun into nothing.
Both horses whinnied and hacked, stomped the ground.
Franco backed from the fence and headed down the lane at a patient stride. Two thoughts twisted his brain: at first light, they’d let out; and the only man to ever call Franco Frenshay “Frenchie” was Eugene Howell, dead fifteen years or better, killed by the boss’ own hands.
The commotion woke Danny. The horses. He bounded out of bed and felt his way across the landing and down the stairs, his eyes only fully useful in the pale moonlight by the time his boots hurried to the swing doors. Franco’s voice was in the cacophony of snorts, coughs, and kicks.
“Easy now, easy!” The boss’s tone was as close to pleading as the kid had ever heard it.
When Danny burst through the swing doors, Franco was turned to him, his gun partly drawn. He slid it back when he recognized the kid’s profile.
The horses pulled at their leads tied to the hitching post. They gagged, kicked spirals of the fog and broke it apart.
“What’s wrong with’em?” Danny was unsure how to help.
“Don’t know,” Franco said. “Easy, boy, it’s me,” he approached his horse, but flying hooves kept him at length.
Horace’s steed slipped loose and staggered in drunk circles.
“Maybe it’s the water,” Danny said. The boss pulled him aside as his horse’s legs buckled and toppled it to the packed dirt.
“It didn’t kill Horace.”
The other horse collapsed in its dance. Both beasts wheezed, trembling until they died.
A coyote started its holler from the plains. It was soon joined by more until Reliant was surrounded. The fog throbbed with the late night devil’s serenade, it undulated with the highs and lows of the notes.
When the coyote choir ended their tune, the fog settled smooth into sharp creases.
“Get inside,” Franco pushed the boy to the Swayback. His eyes winnowed the dark as he followed, his hand on his gun.
“Cook’em,” Horace said. He stared down at the two dead horses.
Danny sought the boss. Franco quietly shook his head.
The boss and the kid had watched the sun rise over Reliant. The fog had dissipated in the early morning to the discordant rhythms of the brute’s snores. Only when the sun was higher than the horizon and Horace had wandered down, looking paler than the night before, did the trio venture into the street for a better view.
Horace kicked at the limp carcass of his horse. “They gonna be stinkin’ mighty foul.”
“Guess we can move downwind.” Franco knelt. He ran his hand along his former mount.
Horace opened the mouth of his horse and its tongue lolled. He fished his hand inside, shoved it down its throat. He withdrew his forearm, slightly damp. “Nothin’ in there.”
Franco stood and adjusted his hat. “Boy, get us some grub. You,” he walked past Horace, “see to that arm. It’s startin’ to stink, too. We don’t wanna chop it off if’n we can help it.”
Horace craned his eyes to the infected, inflamed flesh of his shoulder.
Franco left them to their chores. He made his way down the street, aware of his reflection in the few windows still proud with glass. A tangible malaise watched him through the panes and fragments, it bred and multiplied from dust mote to mold. He had been in a lot of towns, from the smallest to the biggest cities, but Franco had never felt a place around him the way he felt Reliant surrounding him now. He was never so aware of peeling facades and shredded awnings, of emptiness. He felt Reliant’s decay. The town appeared to have aged and deteriorated more during the tiresome passage of night.
The boss tilted his head to straighten the crooked church steeple. He pushed through the throng of weeds in the yard to search the headstones. Franco read the chipped names delicately carved into each weathered marker: Jefferson Charles, Derluth Ashley, Roger Montclair, and more, many more.
All men he had put under.
Then, on the last tombstone: Eugene Howell.
Franco’s sweat turned to frost. His stomach dropped to his feet.
He knew these men were not buried here. They were scattered across the East, from Atlanta to Charleston to Nashville. He’d seen most of them put in the ground himself. And Eugene Howell….
It was assumed the Yankees put the bullet in Howell’s head, but it was fired from Franco’s rifle. Franco took his shot in the chaos of the battlefield and none had been the wiser. He never heard “Frenchie” again until last night, and, no matter how often he checked the time of day on Howell’s watch, he never felt a prod of remorse.
The ancient gravestones continued to yell.
The boss upended a marker and yelled back: “Who done it?” He stomped the granite slab with his boot heel until the name was reduced to pebbles and dust.
Franco freed his gun. “Who the hell’s here? Come out!”
Only the silence bothered to reply, and it offered no answers.
He marched up the church steps and kicked the door open. The wood around the hinges was soft from termites and the door spun and clattered on the floor in the musty interior.
Horace ignored the boss’s advice to clean his wound. Every injury he ever sustained, every sickness he ever contracted, had always healed itself. Gunshots, cuts, stab wounds, broken bones, none of them had killed him yet. His shoulder would be no different.
The brute watched Franco march to the church. He chuckled as the boss toppled a headstone and hollered before he knocked down the door and went in the chapel. Horace enjoyed the show, although he wondered why Franco ignored the woman in the mourning clothes knelt at a graveside. He had to have seen her, he almost walked right over her in his charge to the front stoop.
The giant stumbled as he followed Franco’s footsteps. His forehead was hot and he blinked at the sweat attacking his eyes. She was blurry, and Horace wanted a better look.
When the woman stood, she clutched a bouquet of dead flowers. She turned in Horace’s direction. Her bowed head rose to him as he approached. Through the veil her face became distinct.
“I’ll be damned,” Horace said.
Rot defined her features. Death had claimed her beauty.
“June.” Horace could never forget her face, even marked by the reaper the way it was.
She glided up the church steps.
“I ain’t finished with you,” he walked after her. Horace pulled a knife from his boot. The last he’d seen of June, she had bled and begged him for mercy in a little one room house in Carson City. “I’ll finish you now.” He could remember the sound of the blade as it cut her. “Finish you right good,” he tugged at the discomfort in the crotch of his pants.
The chapel seethed with the power of age. Franco followed his pistol down the aisle, checking for any scoundrel hidden between the gaps in the pews. Roaches and beetles scuttled at his presence, a rat retreated from his glare.
“Who’s in here?” He had regained his composure and it took a divine deal of strength to keep his temper corralled. “Come on out and let’s have a jaw. Seems ya know me, friend. I’d like to know somethin’ or two about you.”
The air was thin. It went sharp to his lungs, cutting him in and out. Rat claws whispered in cheerless recesses. The click-clack tip-tap bore at his ears. The church inhaled.
Horace stood like a statue from a picture book of Roman statues the boss had perused once. His lips contorted with a lopsided grin. He held a knife.
Horace raised his free hand and lifted June’s veil.
Franco’s hat fell to the floor.
“Still quite a sight.” A sheepish pall flickered over the brute’s face.
He thrust the knife in Franco’s side.
Thrice as the cock crowed.
Franco swayed. He raised his gun. The recoil rattled up his arm, down his body, two earthquakes head to toe tips.
Danny searched the Swayback’s pantry. Like the rest of the town, it was all but bare. Cans of oysters, condensed milk, and rat-nibbled bags of cornmeal were not very appealing. There was beef jerky among the few provisions the outlaws rode in with, but the kid knew Franco would like a hot meal, if not expecting one. He’d see what the mercantile held to hit the warm spot, if they were lucky he might find a bag of beans.
As the boy stepped out the back door of the saloon, he noticed the dark sky over the mountain range inching towards Reliant. A breeze galloped down the alley between the Swayback and the clapboard structure next door. Weeds bowed and curtsied. Silence swallowed the drop of his boots on the porch boards. The encores of cricket bands had been replaced by the rolling quiet.
The street was empty save for the thick storm of flies busy at the horses whose abdomens had already begun to swell. Danny knew the carcasses would split and rot where they lay. He figured by tomorrow night they’d all be sleeping at the hotel, hoping the wind pushed the stench in the opposite direction.
The kid wiped dust from the mercantile window with his sleeve. Feeble light shone over the front of the store, leaving the rear to question. He pulled on the door and a bell jangled overhead that made his spine stand straight. He used a tarnished spittoon to wedge the door open.
There were indeed tinned foods on the shelves behind the counter. Salmon, turtle soup, hare soup, and venison sat beside jars of raspberry jam and plum preserves. The center aisle held a bottle of dandelion wine, a half empty sack of flour and a jar of olives floating in filth. Danny searched in vain for a pack of Arbuckles, but there wasn’t so much as a coffee bean to be found.
Danny reached on his tiptoes for cans of turtle and hare soup. Gunfire startled him off balance. He fell by instinct behind the shop counter.
Two shots had been fired. He held his breath, waited for more. In a crouch, he rose to clear the placid grain of the countertop. Through the grimy storefront clouds had advanced to blind the sun over the deserted lane. The breeze continued to tease and tickle errant weeds.
No sign or sight of Franco, neither of Horace. Just the insane silence with the muted whistle and hum of wind.
Danny climbed over the counter, landed gently.
A gust pushed the door and spittoon a quarter closed.
The boy froze, watched the street. With no movement or attack to hamper him, he sidled out the door.
Reliant was bookended by dead horses and the church. In between was row upon row of emptiness. Danny hung close to the building as he shuffled to the edge of the boardwalk. There was nothing and no one hiding around the corner so he darted across the alley to peek around the corner of the next building.
Danny spied the church. The door was gone, replaced by a scream of blackness. Beyond it, violent clouds reveled over the mountain peaks. Billowing tendrils stretched towards the town. Thunder didn’t so much rumble as growl from the heart of the mass.
The kid shuffled around the corner, preferring the dirt to his boots on the planks.
He made quick glances as he neared the end of the street. If he were jumped, there wasn’t much Danny could do except flee. He was unarmed save for his fists and legs: his fists couldn’t best a bullet, and his legs couldn’t outrun one. The only hope he had was Franco, or Horace if the situation were dire enough, but the brute would toss him to the wolves for a laugh.
A pale figure lurched from the church.
“Franco,” Danny half hollered and ran. The boss fell down the warped steps.
Franco clutched his pistol, his other hand his red washed flank. Blood gushed between his fingers.
The kid righted him, brushed grass from his face. “Who?” he whispered.
“Horace,” Franco grunted. “He come at me.” His breath whistled at the strain of words. He pushed his gun into the Danny’s hands. “Make sure he’s dead.”
The boy had to lift the pistol with both hands. The barrel bobbed as he took the steps one at a time. The first coughs of thunder urged him inside.
The church was as musty as the rest of Reliant, but the added acrid sting of blood watered Danny’s eyes. A puddle of it squatted in the aisle at the front of the church. It was black between the mildewed pews in the growing gloom.
Horace had crawled towards the altar and smeared a snail’s trail of blood to dry with time. Two holes were dug in him, chest and stomach. He still clutched the knife in his over-sized fist.
“I see you,” the brute said. His eyes skimmed the kid, squinted beyond. “Found you.”
Behind him, Danny felt the breeze sneak in the doorway. It was cold and traced steps like the lithe walk of a woman. The boy tried to steady the gun, to keep the sight on the mound of bloody flesh with its propped on the prayer bench.
Horace stretched his lips. “You,” he drug out the syllable in the binding air, “ain’t got it…in you to…do nobody.”
Danny squeezed the pistol tighter. Pellets of rain fell from the sky and tattered the roof.
The brute’s lips pursed into a rigored kiss as June emerged from the shadowy vespers. She knelt and lifted her veil. Her lipless mouth met his.
The boy lowered the pistol against his will. “Horace?”
The giant was dead.
Franco showed his face to the bitter sky and opened his mouth for the rain. The heavens had dropped and the ground was drinking its fill, already drunk to mud. The boss listened to the slop of wet graves being disturbed. He saw fingers pushing forth to freedom, hands seeking purchase, yearning.
Danny ran out of the church. “He’s dead!” The kid stumbled, cleaned rain off his eyes.
The sky was black, and blacker still, it boomed and lashed with lightning. Somehow, streamers of fog sulked from the mountains and crept across the range.
The boy looked at Franco. “Is it the Devil?”
Franco couldn’t tell if the boy was crying or if it was just the rain falling down his cheeks.
“No, son,” Franco said. “This here’s God.”
Augustus Howell struck his head up from the grave. He came forth, half out with effort and maggots and worms.
“Ya best go,” the boss told Danny. “Keep the gun. Don’t look back.”
Danny didn’t hesitate. The pistol was heavy, but it didn’t hinder him.
When Franco’s screams tore apart the storm, Danny didn’t look back.
When the rain stopped and the skies cleared. The peculiar hush of the plains set in. The kid set his course ahead.
He didn’t look back.