Foreword by Jared Yates Sexton:
I’m tired of the Internet. I’ll admit it.
Well, let’s try that again.
I’m tired of what the Internet has been.
I’m tired of quick articles written by design to reward skimmers and the impatient. I’m tired of being told that readers aren’t capable of digesting large swathes of information or that it’s simply undesirable to even make the attempt. And I’m sick to death of giving in to the worst parts of instant-gratification.
Thus, we here at BULL present our new feature – The Weekender.
In an effort to promote longer work, we’re going to give you substantial pieces of fiction that you can take into your weekend and enjoy in those few precious seconds where you’re not working in the yard, grading, or commuting from this place or the other. It’s our desire to give you stories that will challenge you not to pull away and give into your “too long, didn’t read” impulses.
If we do this right, you’re not going to be able to get to those chores until you finish the very last word.
So, what better piece to start with than Robert James Russell’s Recompensate, He Said.
Simply put, it’s a brutal, engaging piece of work. Once you wade into these pages it’ll only take a few paragraphs before you realize you’re in the capable of trusted hands of a true artist and I doubt you’ll want to stop short. And, if you simply have to get to work or make that trip crosstown, I can only believe you’ll make sure to leave your browser parked right where you left off.
Now, without further ado, let’s get to the featured presentation: Recompensate, He Said…
A man can no more separate age and covetousness than a’ can part young limbs and lechery.
—William Shakespeare, Henry IV
Bob Antrim — Finds Letter, Map — Reads Letter — Inspects Wound — Shots Fired — Discovers Silver — Escapes.
Bob Antrim felt cold steel mat his hair down and wedge into the back of his skull then he heard the hammer click back into place and in that moment recalled his wife dying of consumption, spittles of blood curtained along the contours of her sunken face and chest, then his boy who had died in infancy. His hands gripped the splintered haft of the pick and for a minute further he dreamt of spinning in place and lodging the wedged spade into his attacker but amid the hallucinated escapades a shot thundered out like drums. The bullet churned down the barrel of the revolver and it crushed through Bob’s skull and out his right eye socket as fluids sprayed like some geyser and his body fell to the ground sharp like stone.
Everett Root rolled the dented Dance revolver around his index finger and holstered it as if he were some dashing and wily roughrider that had been wrangled into a Wild West Show. He coughed a bit and waved the smoke away from his face with his hands and then set his eyes on the heaped body, smiling crookedly and scratching his chin. The ache in his leg gathered up again like a fist and he snorted out a dollop of snot from his nostrils and lowered himself carefully to the floor of the mine. He set his feet up on the twin timber planks that bridged across mud and wet recessed puddles in the rock. He could smell the sulfur still hanging in the air.
Everett unwound a piece of stained-red cloth from around the upper part of his left thigh and he dropped the saturated tourniquet into a soaked pile beside him. He took two fingers and peeled an opening in his trousers that sat dark like cotton flesh and beneath the opening laid a bullet wound that fizzled deep, the opening lipped out as if the skin had been disturbed by some plated tremor deep below. He thumbed at it curiously as if he had familiarities with human anatomy then recoiled from the shocks of pain that shot back. He coughed deep, wet, and squinted his eyes at the gaping hole, imagining he could see the top of the stunted round poking out and he wished he had dug the thing out in San Augustine when he had the chance.
He scooted himself along the ground to alleviate the pressure on his hurt leg until he reached the miner’s boots, then stopped. He sized them up and, too small, wormed his way along the body further, grimacing with hurt at every length he moved. He stopped again at the miner’s waist and breathed hard and squinted his eyes again into the dark and smiled at the smoking wound lodged in his pale face. Everett took a smudged hand and turned the man’s head from side to side, gripping it along the jaw with the charm of a grandfather admiring a boy.
“Sunnuvabitch!” He guffawed and looked around for encouragement as if he had hallucinated an audience that likewise enjoyed his clowning and then let the head flop back onto the rock. “From the right angle, boy, ye look like my brother Jesse!”
He coughed again and rummaged through the large pockets of the man’s overalls and pulled out a small pocketknife with a pewter handle that it folded back into. He unfurled the blade which was dinged around most of the edgebut the tip still pricked hard into the whorl of his thumb so he collapsed the knife and slipped it into his shirt pocket. Digging further he pulled out first a piece of folded paper that had browned along the edges then a large waxed piece of parchment which he spread out over his lap. In the sickly light he examined it and it appeared to be a map of the area with hashes penciled in and around the mountains he was currently in, possibly marking failed claims. There was a longer scratch that portended to what might be a homestead a few miles off. He traced his finger along a ridge of the Organ Mountains then down through the scrublands until he hit Mesilla and he tapped it twice as if to make sure it was no phantasm of his mind. The edges of the map flayed and he took his thumbnail and chipped off dry mud from the lower left corner which revealed the words Johnson’s California, Territories of New Mexico and Utah by Johnson and Browning 1860. He stroked his hand over the dulled reds and yellows and greens that covered it and imagined they had been brighter once. Wondered how long it had been.
He set the map aside when he noticed the claw hammer slung along a leather belt askew along the miner’s hips and he fingered the splintered handle and the iron cheek felt cool against his skin. He then set about unfolding the note and turned it in his hands, fascinated by the theatrics of it ,and he held the paper close and squinted at the longhand words. He spotted a thick candle jammed onto an iron rod that had been wedged into the working face beyond the body, the flame nearly wicked away. Then he angled the paper in such a way that the remaining flicker of yellow-orange light illuminated the page. He licked his lips and ran a hand through his greasy hair and glanced to the entrance of the shaft a ways to his right as the sun had yet to recede. He focused on the extravagant loops staring back at him and enunciated with all the precision he could afford.
My dearest Bob,
I know ye ain’t seen me for a while now but I just wanted ye to know I’m doing alright. And I’m really proud of how good things are going for ye now that ye working the land for the colors.
I don’t know if ye forgot or not, but my birthday was last week. And now that I’m fifteen years Ma’s making me work down at William’s store when I can. I’m meant to earn some extra money on account of Pa’s arm being shot off by Mexers. I hope yer still planning on saving up to come marry me and build me that house ye told me of. And I never did tell anyone what happened between us and I never would. I wouldn’t risk getting ye in trouble on account of me anyhow.
I hope this letter finds ye well and I hope ye can take me far from here soon and we can live forever together somewhere nice.
With great love,
Everett laughed and carefully folded the note back up and set it aside and exhaled loudly. He looked up to the jagged ceiling which sat serrated by erosion and the skilled hands of man and then counted the lateral wooden girts that had been placed at intervals of the shaft, bracing between walls and doused in runoff that seeped from some unknown source above. Everett then tried to calculate how long Bob had been working the coyote-hole and his leg resounded with another flirt of sharp hurt and he took the knife out and opened the blade. He looked back to the candle and thought maybe he would try to dig the bullet out now and saw how infection had spread up his thigh and neared his groin, the skin tender and tinged red.
Everett grunted and rested a hand on the rock behind him and rose carefully. He panted for a moment with the knife still poised and he turned toward the body then heard a thunderous recoil echo back from somewhere outside, bouncing off the walls of the mine. He stopped and arched his back and the hair on his neck stood and he pursed his mouth so as not to produce any sound and he waited and blood pumped to his leg and it ached. The reverberation had deteriorated to a faint nothing and he couldn’t quite decide if it was thunder or a rifle shot. He thought he had lost him days ago.
He felt his nerves give way and his heart raced and thumped erratically and he hobbled to the body ignoring any better judgment to rest. He bent down and took the man’s sweat-stained shirt and ripped a thick strip off, cutting the end free with the pocketknife and he tied it tight around his thigh. He winced as he double-knotted the bandage and then he noticed a tin ore bucket resting beneath the candle soaked by shadows.
A piece of loose rock stripped free from the walls somewhere behind and he anxiously looked back to the entrance of the angled shaft that glowed bright from sunlight and then back to the body. He swallowed hard and his throat was dry and the new bandage provided a bit of release from the pain as he lurched forward. Then he reached into the dark tin bucket and pulled out a large and blocky hunk of silver ore that fizzled in parts from the candleglow.
He took his thumb and scraped dust off the surface and deliberated on the worth of the ore then reached back in the bucket and pulled out a Colt 1851 Navy. The grip had been worn away and the steel of the frame and barrel had been dulled and tarnished. He broke open the cylinder and counted two full chambers and then jammed the gun into his belt.
Everett stood there over the body a moment longer and breathed hard. He detailed the scene as he lingered and noticed an iron chisel peeking out of a fissured line of rock and an old shovel lying near. Satisfied he had scavenged anything of value from the place he hopped on his good leg along the planked runners. They creaked and swayed in addled piles of mud as he moved awkwardly and he emerged along the entrance of the cave and pulled his Dance out. The flat and polished-silver frame sat in contention to the pieced walnut grips and the brass trigger guard glistened in the afternoon sun as he knelt and rested it along the ground next to him in preparation for some ambush he figured was imminent. He squinted his eyes as they adjusted to the flood of light and surveyed the scrubland then slowly stepped onto the graveled slope that ran down to his horse that sat posted where he left it. He stood tense until he was sure nothing had stirred in the distance, musing that maybe he had been on the run for too long, and he distracted himself from the specters he created by looking at the ore heavy in his hand still. He rubbed his forearm against his cheek where sweat beaded and there was dried blood thick like jam along his brow. He smiled crookedly at the ore and rubbed the surface clean and he began shoveling his way down the steep slope past a bouquet of mesquite.
He reached his Morgan horse and placed the silver ore in a leather haversack that slapped against the animal’s loins and he gripped the horn and pulled himself up. He took his old frockcoat lying flat along the rear housing and placed it over his shoulders and it hung long and tattered at the cuffs. He then reached forward to a black fur-felt Kossuth whose hat-cord was tied to the front rigging ring and he placed it on his head. He scratched his chin and balled up a wad of phlegm he intended to spit and then a rifle-shot rifled past him and struck the gravel slope to his left, catapulting pieces of stone and dirt up and out.
Everett heyawwed and clicked and dug his heels deep, slinking low in the saddle as he fled. He rose up a winding path back into the mountains and looked back only once to see where he was but the glare of the fading sun was strong in his eyes and he couldn’t see his attacker as he raced further into the hills.
Out of the Mountains — Surveys Stolen Goods — Cleans Wound — Onward.
The next morning Everett walked down a hillside from the mountains leading his horse by the reins. He had run a zigzag path the night before until he exhausted his equine and then took a position against a sheered cliff-face that looked out into a small valley surrounded by a grove of cane cholla that tangled thick. The small valley had only one entrance that he had guarded like some stern despot and he had only slept for thirty minutes, shivering under his thinned coat and caught beneath stray and howling gusts that wound in looping patterns.
He pressed on further from the hillside, stopping at a small creek that snaked down through the parched ground that was more mud than water and he let his horse drink while he inspected the map again. His detour had ousted him too far north and on the west side of the Organs and now he’d have to cut back through. Everett clicked his teeth for amusement as he computed his new trajectory south and east and he looked for any mention of a trail or road through the mountains. He found none but felt optimistic that he was about a day’s ride from Mesilla and he folded the map again along the worn creases and placed it back in his shirt pocket. He took out the miner’s stolen pistol and broke open the cylinder again and blew into the empty chambers and tucked it back into his belt. He ran his fingers over his own large holster and stalled on the basket-weave pattern and then onto the walnut stock of the gun as if he was anticipating the arrival of a duel.
He yawned wildly and scratched the back of his head where it met the neck and bent down to the stream. He lifted a handful of the gray water to his head and spooned it over and slicked his hair back. Then he took another cupping of water and slurped it greedily and then sat along the bank and watched his horse which had taken to grazing on a sweep of hoary feather-grass. He unwound the bandage from his leg and dipped it in the creek and rung it out. Watery red sifted from the dressing and he scraped it along his forehead which revealed a deep and festering gash that had begun to scab over. He reapplied the covering to his leg and it was cold against his torn skin and he sucked in air through his teeth as if it deterred the stinging.
Everett pulled out the pocketknife and extended the blade and splashed water on it before thumbing it clean. He admired his reflection in it then saw the scraggly beard that had supplanted his jaw. He wet his face again thoroughly and took to peeling off layers of the hair with the knife one stroke at a time. He cut himself repeatedly and left a twizzled mustache and when he was done he splashed water on his face again and it burned like fire, his neck dotted with red.
He stood and looked out into the distance and he limped to his horse and caressed the haversack that held the silver. He pocketed the knife and looked out onto the landscape as he swallowed down a great wave of pain. He took off his coat and held it up and traced the mementos of battle, fingering where grapeshot had ripped through the cape and noting the splatters of blood that formed garish patterns where an elaborate sleeve-braid used to reside on the left cuff. He laid it over the horse’s shoulders and orientated himself in his intended direction and he looked out on the brown rangeland and he felt tired.
Sleeps — A Rattler Attacks — Cleans, Eats Rattler — Digs Bullet Out — Sleeps.
Everett had been riding for hours when sleep began to take him over in the saddle and he slapped his face to stay awake and calculated it was deep into midday. He approached a young Emory oak whose branches cascaded out like a hundred tentacled arms and he tied his horse off and propped himself up against the knotted bark. He unholstered his heavy revolver and laid it on his belly and he fell asleep under the shade of the bell-shaped tree, settling almost immediately into a rhythmic snoring.
He awoke two hours later when his horse began to bray wildly and stomp the ground as if it were dancing to an unheard beat. Its eyes were whaled back so the whites shown and its mane stood up on its own. His senses still percolating, Everett wiped his eyes clean and felt a great pressure behind his nose. The ache had had been festering for days and for a moment he felt his face and thought he was conscious of someone else’s body, remembering after a minute further that he had previously shaved. It was then that he grew alert to his horse’s alarm and he heard the crackle of a rattler’s tail and he spun and saw the snake coiled at the side of the tree, the diamond-shaped blotches running the length of its spine mesmerizing.
Everett jumped back as the snake lunged and its fangs nicked the heels of his boots as he landed. The snake reloaded for another attack and Everett stomped down hard on its head, repeating this action until it thrashed in place and was no more. He slumped back against the tree and breathed hard and loud, the adrenaline momentarily taking over the pain that spouted from his previous afflictions. He bent down and sawed the snake’s head off with the pocketknife and then unfurled it lengthwise and marveled at its span and girth.
He waited until dusk and he scouted the area on foot until he could no longer take the pulsing of his hurt leg and he returned to the oak and felt comfortable that he hadn’t been followed. He set to making a fire and skinning the snake, slicing the meat into finger-length strips, and then cooked the flesh in a small and near-smokeless blaze. He ate until he felt fat and bloated from the meat and gathered a handful of acorns still clinging to the tree and cupped them between a set of limestone bricks that ringed the fire until the outsides of the nuts had seared. The roasted perfume reminded him of his youth and he peeled the largest of the acorns and bit into it, finding it sour and tough. He finished it for the nourishment and pocketed the rest.
He limped around the camp to keep the blood flowing regular and he found a snapped bough nearby that split at the ends. He inserted the sheath of the knife into the split and held the blade out into the fire until it glowed white-yellow around the edges. He hopped back to the saddle and took out a small tin flask and sloshed it around. It was nearly empty and he took it back to the fire and opened the tear in his trousers wider with his hands, pouring the liquid over his wound and he growled at the twinge. The knife had cooled some and clenching his teeth he began digging into the flesh of his thigh until he had carved his way around the expanse of the lodged cartridge and he began prying the thing up until it popped out like a cherry pit.
Night had settled fast on the rangeland and he began to feel the faint of darkness approach like a train. He picked up the crinkled acorn shell and examined it and chucked it out into the brush. He then rewrapped his leg and piled a mound of sand on the fire to squash it out and he dropped into a deep and senseless sleep.
Awakens — Presses North — Discovers Cabin, Apache Raid — Kills Apaches — Erin Sunderland —Shots Fired — A Confrontation — Escapes.
At sunrise Everett awoke and he drank cold tea made from the leathery green oak leaves. He packed his things and rode through the morning, attentive to any sudden changes in the landscape, and he felt ready if the course of action presented itself. The left side of his abdomen had become sore and he felt a tightness when he inhaled, another complication from his previous conflict, and held no doubts that at least one of his ribs had been broken.
He pressed on further north and another hour went by before he found a broad path that steered back through the mountains which he calculated would eventually spit him out onto the great flood plains north of Mesilla. He smiled and stroked the horse’s great brown mane and they began the trek, eventually coming across two sets of naked footprints in the dirt and mud but he didn’t stop. He made himself aware of his surroundings as he rode, practicing his draw and repeatedly turning to speculate on where they’d been. He soon came across a thick strand of creosote bush sandwiched between a narrow pass of land embanked on both sides by inclines. As his horse pressed on he squinted and saw black smoke willow up beyond the last of the soldiered shrubs. Everett ran his hand across the knurl of his gun and he stalled near a thicker expanse that shaded him from view.
He waited and listened and heard a scream belt up and then a carnivorous and mocking baritone laughter follow quickly behind. He moved his horse forward behind the next column of creosote and from his new vantage he saw a small cabin aflame. Out from the rear circled a thin girl in an overgrown coat being chased by two Apaches dressed like Texans, their faces painted with dark soot and the braids of the hair winding down along their shoulders and bouncing as they moved. They danced and chased her and let her believe for a moment she could escape and then the closest of the pair tackled the girl to the ground. The second danced around like a drunk as the first mounted atop her and hit her hard in the jaw. She screamed and kicked and he held her hands down. Everett watched the scene dramatize before him, his eyes like dark stones set deep.
After a moment he clicked at his horse and double-backed through the grove and when he emerged he was at the far end of the cabin and clear of the activities. The smoke was thick and smelled like a smithy and it stung as he sucked in air and swallowed down a succession of coughs that tried to rise up. He steered his horse around the side of the cabin and looped around back and when he came upon the Apaches his horse snorted loudly and alerted them to his presence.
The Apache that had been dancing was the first to react. He reached to his belt and attempted to pluck a revolver from it but Everett pulled out the miner’s Navy with lightning reflexes and let ripple a shot into the Apache’s head that struck him through the cheek. He fell lifeless to the ground and amid screams from the girl the second Apache rose up and howled and Everett fired the last shot of the miner’s pistol that struck the Indian in the throat. He collapsed to his knees and hugged at the wound with his hands as if he was praying and blood came down in torrents. Everett threw the gun down and clicked at his horse again and circled the fallen warrior. Then he took his long and heavy Dance from his holster methodically, taunting the dying Apache, and fired another shot that struck him in the head.
The girl stood and her eyes were sunken and bagged with dark rings and she whimpered in disbelief. She looked up to Everett and dusted herself and her coat that looked as if it had once belonged to a barrel-chested man and she took one of her oversized sleeves and wiped the blood from her mouth.
“Thank you, mister. Thank ye kindly. My name’s Erin Sunderland.”
Everett turned his head and spit a thick string of expectorate and eyed her warily, sweat forming at his palms and if his leg ached at that moment he chose not to show it on his face.
“Ye have no idea! They was a’hollerin about and they was going to have me, then kill me. Ye really saved me, mister. What’s yer name?”
And then Everett extended his arm from his lofted angle and clicked the hammer back and shot a single round that entered between Erin’s yes, knocking her back onto the ground and sending a mushroom of dust and sand up around her. He holstered his gun and waited as her body spasmed in retaliation of the death that took hold of her and then she laid still and he dismounted. He rested his jacket along the seat and tied the reins to an old hitch and hobbled to her and her oversized sackcoat. He tried to kneel but the pain from his bulletwound had grown powerful again and instead he sat on the ground at her side. He was a distance from the cabin and the smoke was thick and it fingered into the cloudless sky like a dark beacon. He swallowed and licked his lips and then studied the gray felted material that matted together to form her worn jacket and he touched it like a haberdasher might.
Everett smiled and set his hat next to the girl’s body and looked up into the morning sun and the warmth felt good on his face. He rested for a while then began rifling through her pockets, pulling out a few copperheads and a silver locket on a silver chain whose clasp had twisted and snapped. He opened it and there was a tiny manicured daguerreotype of a plump infant cut and wedged into the oval-shaped cavity. He thumbed over the silver outside again, the embossed floral patterns pleasing, and then pocketed it. Then he glanced down at her left hand and noticed a dulled brass wedding band. He tugged at it and it wouldn’t budge past the base knuckle. He lifted her tiny hand and took her ring finger into his mouth to wet it and took his left hand and braced it onto hers and then yanked with a great fulcrumed arm movement, jamming the ring off and into his palm. He picked it up with his index and middle fingers and held it suspended in front of his face like it had some spectacular authority over him. He analyzed it and then tucked it back into his palm and spit at it, rubbing it ferociously with two fingers until it gleamed and distorted his reflection like some mirrored caricature.
The cabin took to burning and the roof collapsed in on itself within a half an hour and he watched in wonder as his horse paraded and rummaged through a stray clump of tussock. Everett scouted the area and followed a path that continued past the cabin through a narrow precipice that spilled out onto the flood plains. He leaned against a copper-colored hill of rock and vegetation at the trailhead and took the map out again, tracing his finger from where he presumed he was currently stationed. He would head south from the flood plains and then cross the Rio Grande at its most narrow and then he’d be in Mesilla.
He folded the map along the edges and returned to the cabin and drank water from a shallow well that tasted of iron and dirt. One of the Apaches had a rawhide canteen and he filled it up with water and replaced his pocketknife with a large Bowie variety that the other Indian had hidden in his boot. Everett tucked it against the back of his belt and then checked both their guns. The sights were set crooked and he tossed them into the hillside where they landed with an echoed thwack. He saw an old Saratoga trunk that peeked out of the doorway and he dragged it out before it could be ravaged by flames and found nothing inside but old garments and the mildewed smell of age.
Everett coughed as he stood studying the trunk and the girl’s outline through her coat, satisfied he had looted anything of value from the scene. He tucked the map in a large pocket of his frockcoat and again took the silver ore out of the tied haversack and washed it with well water until it was lustrous and youthful in its appearance. He took a segment of the girl’s homespun dress and ripped it into a rectangle and wrapped the ore, tucking it into his shirt where it sat like a cancerous protuberance at his side. Then he straddled each of the Apaches and fired another round into their skulls which splintered and thudded like bark as they seized posthumously.
He let his horse continue to graze and he hopped back to the first row of creosote bush and lowered himself as he grimaced at the pain like a stage-actor might. He shifted in place until he had worn a comfortable seat in the dirt and grass and he had the perfect view of the house turn to kindling. He unwound the bandage from his leg and it stuck to the wound, the fluids thick like honey. A rock wren flapped noisily above and it called kereekereekeree at the fire that roared, supplanting its dissatisfaction at the intrusion. Everett diverted interest from his hurt leg and held a hand visored along his brow. He squinted as the sun rayed down bright and with one eye shut he followed the bird and its great arced pattern until it disappeared beyond the ridges that humped up behind the cabin. He bit at his thumbnail until a chipped piece flicked off in his mouth and he spit it at his side.
He mumbled to himself and looked back down to his leg and propped open the tear in his trousers. The skin around the wound had become darker and the sepsis trailed further up his thigh. He could barely touch the infected area without recoiling from considerable hurt and he held up his fingers and counted them down one by one until none remained, each a token of days past. His mind raced and he damned himself for being too cautious in Las Palomas.
He took an acorn from his pocket and bit into the flesh with his incisors and then began to peel the russet-colored skin away from the point of insertion. He chewed a sizable piece and it was bitter and he swallowed it largely whole. He took the rawhide canteen he had flung over his shoulders and drank to dilute the taste of the nut. The water gave off hints of whiskey that had been stored there previously and it burned slightly as it pitched down his throat. He slung the leather strap of the canteen around his neck and wiped his mouth clean with his shirtsleeve then dried his hands along the breast of his shirt.
The cabin timbers crackled and turned red in the centers while the rest charcoaled and a popping sound rose up from the rubble. Everett grew bored with the combustioned demonstration before him and took to scraping off the blood that streaked in filamented designs along his shirt with his shorn thumbnail and he felt a respite wash over him.
And then a booming shot whirred past him and hit the ground to his right, boring into the loose soil as he backed up against the narrow trunk of the creosote bush with great alarm. Everett breathed hard and put excess pressure on his leg as he shifted positions and it started to bleed black-red again. Another shot rang out and struck the ground in nearly the same spot, sling-shotting debris up and out and he panicked and looked around for its origin. Then he stood with as much ferocity as he could afford, bolting toward the wreckage of the cabin while his horse began to bray and run in circles nearby, disoriented from the sudden incursion of violence.
Everett’s strides were narrow and as he stilted forward his face twisted in agony and then he heard the explosion of another rifle-round exit the gun and he felt a daggered stab hit him in the right shoulder. The pain was severe and it spread and he tripped over himself and shoveled hard to the ground. He spit out a hash of saliva and dirt and with his thumb and forefinger he pinched his eyes clean. Lying on his belly between the trunk and the cabin, the smoke was thick and near to the ground and sheltered him for the moment from the assault. He could hear his heart thump wildly and he tried to press himself up as his body wracked in a collective contraction of hurt and he fell back. A cough tried to come up as he breathed in the black smoke and he swallowed it down best he could, letting only a burp exit. He laid still and tried to take note of the approaching steps of his attacker then reached his right hand down until he felt the stock of his gun. He gently tugged and it came loose from the holster with what seemed like a cacophony of noise. He warily checked his flanks and broke open the cylinder and he took note of the three rounds remaining.
He rearranged himself on his side and peeked beyond the trunk to the grove of creosote then another shot hit the thin wooden siding of the trunk and bored right through, only just missing his arched neck.
“Wait just a damn minute!” He let his words resonate from the sloping hillsides and he waited with the hammer of his gun cocked. “How about we have a chat about all this, all right?”
He rolled onto his back and the bullet in his shoulder felt awkward and buried and it pained him. He squirmed some more and the handle-head of the knife he had tucked away in his belt pressed hard into his back.
“Ye got me between shit and sweat here. Payback, I suppose.”
He trailed off and again awaited a response and got none. His mind began to hum and formulate escape routes. He thought of ducking into the grove and returning fire but didn’t know where the shots were coming from and he wasn’t certain how fast he could move. Then he counted how many steps it would be to the cabin’s front door. Most of it had been eaten away, leaving a garish and charred breach that sat open like some devilish and crackling mouth. He glanced quickly to the concaved roof and then to the two anterior window-frames that had collapsed fully from the weight of the headers and tie-beams. The cabin was all but cindered ruins now and yet still he concocted in his mind.
“Fine, cuffee. Just fine.”
Everett’s palm sweated along the grip of his gun and he breathed hard and counted to three. Then with a great burst of power and speed he rose and ran as best he could toward the cabin. A shot flew past him and smacked a piece of the shingling, chipping off flakes of wood just above his shoulder. He vaulted himself through the charred doorway and over a small mass of dark timbers then fell awkwardly onto the floor. He landed on the wrapped silver ore tucked in his shirt and it dug into his already sore ribs and he howled out a mix between laughter and hurt. Another shot pierced overhead and he opened his eyes slowly, biting his lip. He was caked in dark soot. He wiped his eyes clean with his palms, revealing pale flesh that ringed his eyes. He coughed and pulled himself up and began stumbling forward in the smoky room toward the rear, waving his arms about to dissuade himself from breathing more of it in and to help him see.
Lying around him were the scalded remnants of the girl Erin’s life. He spotted a pair of leather brogans collected and melting by an old cast-iron cook-stove and a partially finished and ornamental rug aflame along the edges close to the bed which also sat dark and matted from fire. His boots echoed on the floor and his eyes stung from the drape of thick black smoke. He coughed again and he thought he was moving in circles until his waving hands thudded against the far wall. He heard the recoil of the rifle again, sounding closer as he strafed his hands along the wall until he reached a window that had not yet buckled. He lifted his shirt up onto his nose like a bandit’s mask and he thumped the butt of his heavy gun against the glass until it shattered with a loud crash. Smoke and spits of flame rocketed out the new exit and he jumped back to avoid a scalding. Then he shaved the remaining pieces of wedged glass from the frame with the barrel of his gun and heaped one leg out and over the sill. He ran his hand along his shirt and felt the silver and then clasped the trim with his free hand and pulled himself free of the house, falling onto his hands and knees onto the dirt.
He remained in that position while he finished a sequence of wild and arresting coughs, his eyes clamped shut and his tongue wagged helplessly and felt as if it might rip off from the root. He thumped his chest with his fist and then wiped a streak of the black soot from his mouth as he tilted his head up. Near him sat the trail that would spill out onto the flood plain. He hadn’t heard another shot and figured his attacker was either out of ammunition or biding his time and playing mind games. He sat up on his knees and he quickly wiped his gun free of soot and debris and his hurt leg and his back pained together in a distressing synchronization. He took in large gulps with the hopes it might fend off his broken ribs but it hurt far worse and he coughed with every lungful he took in. He saw his horse kicking wildly to his right, dancing and trotting and braying near the Apaches’ bodies and he thought of running over and riding off but then figured his attacker might be expecting that. He stood on his leg and heard his hip pop and he limped forward, the soot blowing from his person as he moved.
Everett stirred into the narrow trail flanked by the hills on both sides behind the cabin and grabbed the rock faces for support. He clutched his gun firmly and heard the kereekereekeree of the rock wren again. He glanced up into the blue sky as he lurched ahead but couldn’t locate the bird, the headache he had swallowed down for days fierce and pounding now.
The Rio Grande in Sight — His Ailments Mount — Swaddling For the Ore — Crossing the River — Mesilla in Sight.
Everett peeled a black-red paste from his lips as he sped through the trail. His groin excruciated in waves and he figured it to be lead poisoning. He pushed through the hurt and eventually slowed his pace, confident that his attacker took to rummaging through his belongings back at the cabin in an attempt to look for the silver, still tucked away safely in his shirt. He ran a hand through his hair and coughed a bit and the path eventually opened up into the flood plain, dotted with lone cottonwoods and sweeps of browned desert grasses. He stood briefly to navigate and spied the Rio Grande about a mile out, gray and loud. Mesilla was still further south but he noticed a road on the far side of the river that would take him there and he smiled crookedly.
He trotted down the steep slope and across the range, passing monuments of salt cedar and sagebrush and croppings of bouldered limestone and sandstone. Everett marched on, glancing back to the pass like clockwork. His vision began to blur and he mistook shadows of dashing clouds overhead as armies of villains bent on doing him harm. He crept on as his headache worsened and soon he forgot his sentried errand. He kept low to the ground and stopped himself twice from collapsing completely, bracing himself on passing man-made edifices of rock and earth. His limp had worsened and he stumbled upon wreckage of some wrecked wagonette and used a long timber from the wagon-bed as a crutch until it snapped in half ten minutes later. The sun was hot and without his hat or coat he felt the full effects of it on the nape of his neck.
Everett had been walking for three quarters of an hour in an unintentional crisscross route through the plains and had been stopping every few minutes to realign himself amid his worsening condition, stopping at a large and rounded granite stone at the bank of the river. He gently lowered himself into the damp mud and his body throbbed all over as he arched his back along the boulder, the bullet buried in his shoulder shouting in pain. The rock gave him significant cover and a cool draft washed over him. He began another succession of coughing fits and spit up blood at the conclusion of each. His hands were shaking from his wounds and the hunger that plagued him and he took out the last acorns and chewed them, skins and all. They were rubbery and sour and he felt puke come up in his throat but he managed to keep them down. He untwisted the canteen from his torso and drank the rest of the water. Some of it spilled down his chin and felt cool against his skin.
The river sat before him and bubbled and called loudly and the opposite bank seemed forever away. He had to squint to keep it in focus and mulled on his original intent to head further south, of finding a bridge or a shallow sandbank closer to Mesilla that he could easily negotiate, but he knew he no longer had the strength for this kind of exploration. He blinked his eyes and slapped his face twice and felt a bit of refreshment from the acorns. He took out the silver ore from his shirt and unwrapped it, caressing the jarred surface with his sooty hands. He placed the rock next to him and then with the bowie knife he sawed off the left sleeve of his shirt, tugging at the threaded remains until it ripped free at the seams. He then sliced the fabric down the center which opened the shirt up as a large piece of fabric and then he cut the leather strap off the canteen. He rested for a moment and breathed hard and then cut a small hole at each end of the sleeve, placing the ore at the center and wrapping it. Once it had been covered fully and wound tight he needled the leather strap through each of the small holes and knotted it at each end. He tested if it would hold by putting weight on it and it held up fine and looked like some sort of vulgar swaddling. He placed the strap around his neck then tucked it back into his shirt. He fastened his gun into his holster with a small leather buckle that buttoned and he stood and braced himself on the rock. He looked back to the steep slopes behind that ran up to the mountains and then to the pass that sat dark with shadows and ran a hand through his hair.
He crutched along the riverbank until he found a downed cottonwood limb bleached white from the sun. It was dry in parts and he broke off the rotted and chipped end and hiked it up slowly under his arms, cradling it tight. He stood and peered into the river and couldn’t see the bottom but stepped in slowly anyway, his high-leg laced boots filling with the cold water, chilling him violently. He waded further out and he felt a sharp pinch when the water hit his leg-wound then groin. He tested the bough and it floated and he again secured his gun and the parcel in his shirt. He then took handfuls of water and splashed it lavishly onto his shoulders in preparation for the looming immersion.
“All right, ye bastard.”
Everett could feel his boots sink in deep to the sand of the riverbed and knock against stones half-buried and continued on until the bottom slipped from him altogether. He hooked one arm over the branch and paddled until he hit a strong current that began to lead him south and he angled his legs out in front in such a way that if he did happen upon any submersed obstacle, he’d be deter any major damage.
He passed parts of the river that became shallow again and he tried his best to be closest to the east shore but found himself pulled back to the center. Water splashed in his mouth and it was cool but tasted dirty. His headache had retreated some and his wounds seemed to be puckered shut from the sudden temperature change. After drifting quarter of an hour he began to kick wildly, his hurt leg biting with the movement, and he began paddling with one arm, eventually digging his boots into the ground. He hauled himself up onto the muddy bank and collapsed on his back while the branch floated on. His chest raised and lowered in great peaks and recesses and he coughed again, turning his head to side and letting loose a thick stream of blood and phlegm.
He cradled a hand over the ore which sat bunched along the side of his abdomen and he abbreviated his breathing to again avoid further ache against his ribs. He sat up and felt dizzy and looked behind him with both palms plastered in the mud. A lip of tussock oversaw the sloped riverbank behind where he sat, the dirt road just beyond and out of sight. He felt confident he had outmaneuvered his attacker and rested for a while then pressed himself up and climbed the rise behind, pulling himself onto his knees along a thick patch of the grass. He looked back to the river and saw his tracks in the bank and his handprints sunken in the mud as he coughed and spit blood again. Twin grooves ran along the road, worn by wagons and schooners, and he looked south and saw a house about a mile away. He put his hand along his brow to shade from the sun and could just make out Mesilla about a half a mile beyond the lone structure. He clutched the ore closely at his side and began shuffling along the side of the road, the enduring pains of battle swallowed down again at the prospects just ahead.
Mesilla — A Pair of Gentleman — The Past Discussed — Charlie Lamb’s Place — The Ore Presented For Assaying — George Lynn Hany.
Everett reached the lone house but it was little more than a converted storehouse on the outskirts of town. He stumbled up on the porch and unclamped his gun in the holster then took the collar of his shirt and wiped a circle clean in the thick dust that sat along a sectioned window. Inside sat heaps of old crates and pallets of grain sacks stacked tall as a man. His coughing had worsened during his walk and it felt more cavernous now, as if his body was trying to eject something deep from within.
He stepped off the porch and left the shade of the eave and he crept on toward Mesilla. He could make out a sidewalk running alongside the hotel and a livery at the rear. Everett smiled at the prospect of civilization and ran a hand down the center of his shirt as if pressing the wrinkles out. Two buttons had been shorn off in his march and their absence exposed his drawn pectorals, matted with dark hair and clinging to the ribs beneath. His boots had dried some but his feet felt damp and waterlogged and he could feel the skin on his toes begin to peel away from the saturation. His limp was extreme now and as he hobbled into Mesilla he came upon two middle-aged men conversing, gesticulating wildly as if they were traipsing over a tale of mythic proportions. The first man was bloated and fat and his charcoal waistcoat seemed to be ready to burst. He wore a .36 caliber Pocket Navy revolver slung in a small holster at his left side. The second man was tall and thin and wore a dark Prince Albert double-breasted frockcoat with abbreviated lapels and carried no gun. The tall man blushed and stopped mid-speech at the sight of the tramp approaching and an awkwardness settled between the pair. Everett eyed them back and waved with one hand while pinning his torn shirt closed with the other.
“Can we help with ye something, friend?”
“Ye gotta color mill here?”
The skinny man thought hard and licked his lips. “What ye mean is an assay office, right?”
The fat man pointed to Everett’s leg and to his missing sleeve, highlighting the wounds he was already conscious of. “Land sakes, son. Are ye alright?”
“If you’ll allow me, maybe ye should go see the doc, get yerself all fixed up.”
“Just the assay office, please.”
“Son, there ain’t no point cashing in if ye ain’t gunna be healthy to spend it.”
“Yes, what’s the hurry, friend?”
“Just the assay office.”
The fat man exchanged a wayward look with the tall man and then motioned behind to a shop a block down and on the right with a small sign stenciled with lettering too insignificant to read from their position.
“Yes. Charlie Lamb’s place. It ain’t official, but he’ll take care of you, give ye a fair price.”
The fat man tugged at his ear and tried hard to attempt any form of civility and then coughed into his fist.
“Ye been mining?”
“In the Organs, day’s ride or so.”
“Where ye from?”
“North or south?”
“Ye with Sibley?”
“The rest of ye left last year.”
“Well, just sayin’ we ain’t aiming for any trouble, things have settled here now. Ye ain’t trouble, are ye, boy?”
“No, sir. Just needin’ to get cashed in is all.”
“I thought y’all went east to San Antonio, anyway?”
Everett kicked the dirt a bit and bit his lip and folded his arms about his chest, his bare arm thick with dried blood and caked soot and mud.
“I parted ways after Glorietta.”
The fat man placed a hand on his hip and cleared his throat. He saw hunger in the stranger’s eyes and it shook him cold. The wound on Everett’s leg started to pound with hurt again and his shoulder began to rack and spasm and pump thick black blood. He shifted his weight uncomfortably and then heard the trill and familiar kereekereekeree of the rock wren again. Everett smiled and stared up to the sky and the afternoon sun was heavy and glaring in his eyes as he saw the small bird whoop and twirl and dance. Everett hooted in place, genuinely amused by the happenstance.
“Well, I’ll be, gentlemen. I believe that bird there’s been following me for miles. Ye fellas ever seen anything like that before, a bird taking to a man like a dog?”
The fat man squinted his eyes and followed the bird in the sky and the tall man did the same then smiled a bit.
“I saw a man, oh, some twenty odd years ago with a tamed magpie. Louder than hell, that thing was, but smart. Could even make it talk when he wanted.”
“But this bird ain’t tame, though. I’ve never seen a wild animal like that take to someone before, is what I’m saying. It’s queer.”
“Yes, it is queer.”
The fat man clicked his teeth and Everett felt he had had enough of their company and he palmed his jaw in quick strokes.
“All right, then. Thanks to ye both for the directions.”
“Good luck to ye, son.”
Everett nodded and limped along and studied the buildings as he passed. A woman dawdled out of a general store with her young son and then saw the rough and beaten man and scurried back in. He smiled and passed the doctor’s quarters and made a note of its location. Laughter emerged from somewhere nearby and he heard the muted harmony of a piano being played. Piles of horse manure settled in the street and twice he saw deputies on the far end of the main boulevard circle one another and talk and motion. Everett kept to himself and bundled his shirt shut, keeping his eyes to the ground as he stepped up on the boardwalk connecting Charlie Lamb’s to a fancy-type restaurant. He came upon the small door of the assay office and there was a sign nailed to it and he traced the words with his fingers, straining to keep the letters cohesive between thuds of his beating headache. He then rapped his knuckles on the small glass window set in the door and waited.
“Yes, come on in.”
He pushed the door open and the room was spacious with a significant lack of décor. In one corner sat a small adobe furnace corroded and dirty next to a long table with a handful of small molds laid out. Everett hobbled up to an ornate desk near the far wall and an elderly man emerged from a back room wiping his hands clean on a soiled cloth, a white apron strung about his waist. He looked up through a pair of small and round glasses at the wretch before him.
“What…uh, what can I do for ye?” the man said.
Everett reached in his shirt and took out the swathed silver ore and peeled the leather strap from around his neck before setting it on the desk. He carefully took the wrapping off and then took a lurching step back, presenting the rock like a proud parent might a child.
“That’s a nice piece.”
“It’s going to take me, uh, going to take me a while to process it. Ye know, to tally it up? I ain’t usually processing pieces this size.”
“That’s fine. I’ll wait.”
“Yes, alright. Let me go grab some papers in the back for ye to go over. Can ye read?”
“All right. I’ll be right back, then.”
The old man creaked into the back room and Everett stood erect and ran a hand through his dried hair. His shoulder ached furiously and his groin felt as if it had been set aflame but he stood proud with his chest puffed out triumphantly. A quick draft raked against his naked arm and he heard the door push open and yet he held his affixed gaze to the silver ore on the desk, smiling crookedly and placing a hand along it again, molesting the surface with great tenderness.
Then Everett Root felt the unmistakable cold steel of a rounded aperture wedge into the back of his skull. He smelled a familiar tang of heavy musk and black tobacco and his face washed over white and harrowed as he heard the hammer of the gun click back. He moved his hand slowly to the stock of his Dance and his thoughts turned to the grove of creosote bush and the girl Erin whose life he ended with a single shot. He heard the man’s lips part with a smack as if he had planned the next words with great and meticulous detail.
“Happy New Year, Root.”
And then a shot thundered out like drums. The bullet tunneled through the dented barrel of the revolver and it crushed through Everett’s skull and back out through his cheek, chipped bone and teeth and strings of fluids springing out, his body falling to the ground heavy like stone.
George Lynn Hany stood for a minute longer then holstered the .44 caliber Colt Army revolver. A significant ring of dark and dried blood sat at the right shoulder of his shirt and he wiped his ebony hands clean on his worn galluses then smiled. He stepped over Everett’s pretzeled body and grabbed the silver ore from the desk and tucked it back into the fabric and under his arm. The old man peeked sheepishly from the back room and George tipped the stunted brim of his derby then swiveled toward the door. His jackboots echoed on the puncheoned floor as he cleared his throat and smiled. He could smell the sulfur still hanging in the air.