A Most Notorious Man

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short story about Cash Johnson, a sheriff, and Charlie Bucker, a bank robber and unhinged man, set in the hot wild-west of Arizona. Part of the 'Shorts' collection of short stories available on Amazon.

Submitted: November 20, 2018

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Submitted: November 20, 2018

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Cash Johnson lifted his hat to let some air through. It made little difference. There was no breeze. He fanned himself with the brim, but it just moved hot air around his dry face, so he put the hat back on.

It wouldn’t be long now anyhow. Two days at most. Two days to Oakwell Ridge and he could conduct his business, get that over with and have himself the deepest, longest bath in the history of humanity.

He removed the stopper from his canteen and took a sip of the tepid water. It tasted of tin. There must have been something in that last water hole. Not that it mattered. Out here, you didn’t drink for pleasure, you drank to stay alive. So long as there was no carcass bobbing around, it didn’t do to be too fussy.

He ran a hand down Pie’s neck and gave him a slap. He was okay. He was used to it. The two of them must have been twice around the world by now. When he needed a rest, he’d learned to just stop, put his head down and refuse to lift it until he was ready to go.

Cash sensed one of those moments coming along. They’d been riding since dawn and it must have been just short of midday by now. Pie had kept a steady pace, not once breaking stride, but now Cash could sense his withers beginning to drop a little. He’d wait ‘til he sensed a good patch of browse then get his head down. That would be Cash’s cue to stretch his legs and maybe put some coffee on the fire. So long as there was some sort of shade, he’d be happy enough.

It took about another ten minutes for Pie to make his stand. He’d sniffed out the browse long before he actually found it. His head went down and he started to eat.

Cash removed his saddle to give him a chance to cool off. He knew damn well that if Pie fell, he fell with him.

He looked around for some brush to build a small fire. He’d spend a couple of hours here, watch the sun start to slide down the other side of the sky, and then keep on ‘til that same blue sky began to bruise. Then he’d make camp for the night.

He came upon the man around the back of a large rock. He was propped up, legs spread out before him, no boots, no hat, no water, no life.

His hands were laid across his stomach. A very dark red stickiness, by now almost black, oozed between his fingers. Flies fed upon it. Between his fingers was single, blood-stained dollar bill.

He walked up to the man and crouched down next to him. He smelled rotten. Whatever his hands covered, it was the death of him, for sure. Cash wasn’t overly curious to find out. There was no point doing anything with the body. The ground was too hard to bury him. If he covered him up, out of respect, then some animal, coyote or wolf, would just pull it off and start chewing on him anyway.

Cash looked at his face. He was young, maybe twenty-three, if that. He had straw coloured hair that fell into a long untidy fringe. His eyes were closed, but Cash was willing to bet that they would’ve been blue, hard blue, the kind of blue that made the girls stare for just a second longer than they should. He was a good looking boy. Shame. He was someone’s son, if only for the moment that he was spat out into the world. What happened after that was anyone’s guess.

Cash put a hand upon the boy’s shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, kid.’

The boy stirred. He moaned.

Cash nearly fell over backwards. ‘Holy hell!’

The boy’s eyes opened slowly. They rolled wildly towards Cash. They were blue.

‘Hold on,’ said Cash. He ran back to where Pie was grazing and picked up his canteen, then ran back to the boy.

The boy had summoned up the effort to move his head. His eyes followed Cash as he came around the rock. They flicked to the canteen and became desperate. Cash knelt down next to him.

‘I’m not gonna let you take a long drink of this, boy,’ he said. He took his bandana from around his neck and ran the water over it until it was good and wet. ‘One step at a time.’

He put the cloth to the boy’s mouth and wet his lips. The boy’s head lifted as he strained to get more of the water. Cash gave the cloth a light squeeze and let the water dribble onto the boy’s dry tongue.

The boy let it roll, started to cough on one little drop, then beckoned for a drop more. Cash gave the cloth another squeeze. The boy’s tongue came free. It had glued itself to the roof of his mouth. It wouldn’t have been long before it was swollen and would have choked him to death.

It occurred to Cash that he may not have done this boy any favours. He sat down on the ground and fed the boy from the bandana for a good fifteen minutes. The boy’s parched, papery lips split as he began to move them. There was little blood flow. He had no fluid left in him to give up.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

The boy licked his lips and clucked his tongue. ‘Bucker,’ said the boy. ‘Charlie Bucker.’

Cash looked at him long and hard. ‘Charlie Bucker? The Charlie Bucker?’

The boy nodded.

‘I thought you were dead already.’

Charlie Bucker smiled. ‘Nearly there,’ he said.

‘There are a lot of people would like a slice of you, Mr Bucker,’ said Cash. ‘You are a most notorious man.’

There it was. The boy was gone.

‘I am indeed,’ said Charlie Bucker.

Cash dribbled some more water into his mouth. He lay there like a baby bird being fed by its mother.

'What the hell happened to you?'

Charlie Bucker looked down at the hand that still covered his gut. He lifted the hand and twisted it in the air. It was bloody. 'I got shot,' he said. He wrinkled his nose as the stench hit him. 'Stinks, don't it.'

 

Drew Sawyer and Troy Lasiter had been outside the house since sun-up. They had watched the mist roll in over the grass and hover three feet above it like a ghost waiting to feed. They had seen the smoke curl from the chimney and seen the rough and ready curtains drawn back and Charlie Bucker’s naked frame against the window.

He had seen them, put his hand to his eyes to deflect the low sun and make sure, then retreated from view. A moment later, he was out on the porch, butt naked but for a gun belt and the pistol in his hand.

Drew and Troy rode up.

‘Morning, boys,’ said Charlie. He was amiable enough, but the gun betrayed his distrust. ‘You’ve been out here a while now, I’d say. Heard your horses’ footsteps on the ground. Noise like that echoes as night. Goes through the ground. Heard them whinny too.’ He waved the gun in their direction. ‘Heard the bridles, the bits as they chewed on them. Heard one of you strike a match and your whispering. God help you boys if you ever need a place to hide. Sheriff would find you in fifteen seconds flat.’

Drew shuffled in his saddle. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘We weren’t hiding and you won’t ever know about that cause that will never happen.’

‘True,’ said Troy. ‘Never happen.’

Charlie looked at the boys, Drew with his long, black hair flowing like the River Styx from out under his hat, that wild beard and those smiling brown eyes. He had on a long light brown overcoat that looked new, black, worn-in boots, black pants and black shirt. He had a red bandana around his neck. He had a pistol round his waist and a repeating rifle tucked away in his saddle. He was beginning to go a little at the gut, but was still built like a bear.

Troy on the other hand was not what anyone would call a looker. He had a thin, grey face that seemed to have been chiselled from granite by a drunk. His teeth were uneven and black and he had eyes that danced all over the place, no matter what he was looking at – they just did not keep still. He had a moustache that was impeded by a scar he had sustained in a fight when he was fourteen. It had healed unevenly, a chunk of his lip being left on the opponent’s knuckles. The hair would not grow where the skin had joined, so as well as the natural cleft that any man had on his top lip, Troy had this tiny bare patch and then the moustache carried on. It wasn’t even what you would call a particularly stiff moustache, not quite the broom head of many men. It was more as if some of the thin, wispy, lifeless hair on his head had one day slipped and made purchase there. It was red too, which rarely looks good in a moustache.

‘What do you want, boys?’ Charlie asked. ‘Not that you ain’t welcome here, but I got coffee and eggs waiting.’

Drew laughed. ‘I heard you got yourself a lady. You living the soft life now? Making an honest living?’

‘Comes a time…’ said Charlie.

‘Can we come in?’ asked Drew. ‘I can smell coffee.’ Charlie looked around, back at the door, making up his mind. ‘You can trust us, Charlie. Besides, you still got that big old Colt if you need it. What was it you used to say?’

Charlie looked at the gun. ‘If you have to cock it, you have to mean it.’

‘That’s it!’ smiled Drew. ‘Once you pulled that hammer back…’

Charlie lifted up the gun and showed them. The hammer was back.

The horses snorted in the fresh morning air. They chewed noisily on their bits and scraped their hooves in the dirt as they waited restlessly to move on.

‘Okay,’ said Charlie. ‘Coffee. State your business and then be on your way. If your nice to me I might even give you a bag of coffee for the journey. It’s good stuff.’

‘Got any sugar?’ asked Troy as he dismounted.

Charlie made a display of looking at Troy’s teeth. ‘You figure you need sugar?’

Troy shrugged. ‘Damage is done. Lost two when I lost my lip.’  He curled his lip back and showed off the gap where his teeth had been.

The three of them slipped into the old wooden house.

 

'This is Mary,' said Charlie. He had thrown on a blue shirt and some pants. Troy and Drew nodded and removed their hats. Drew's eyes lingered upon Mary. He made no attempt to hide his desires.

'Drew,' said Charlie. 'Eyes on me. That's the last time I say it.'

Drew's eyes took one last slide the length of Mary, then looked at Charlie. 'Been a while,' he said by way of an excuse.

Charlie invited them to sit. Mary put coffee before each of them. The steam rose and carried the smell with it. Troy took out a flask and emptied a thumbfull of the contents into the coffee. He offered it round and was declined.

'The last thing I saw of you two boys was your backs as you fled the carnage at Wombwell.'

Charlie laid his Colt down on the table before him and took out a pouch of tobacco. He filled a paper and rolled himself a cigarette.

'And for that we apologise,' offered Drew. He ran a hand slowly through his enormous beard. Half the dust in Utah fell out. 'We both thought you was dead. There didn't seem to be much point sticking around.'

‘The point was I wasn’t dead, Drew.’

‘We were not aware of that, were we, Troy.’

‘Not aware,’ echoed Troy.

Charlie grunted. He knew damn well that they had bolted like rabbits as soon as the first shot was fired. They didn’t even look to each other, just jumped on their horses and fled. It was only by the grace of God, or the Devil, that Charlie had managed to get to his horse and head off in the other direction.

Drew and Troy had fired blindly as they fought their way out. They had taken out three bystanders, one of them a woman. Charlie had seen her as he rode past. She had a look of surprise on her face. It had stuck in death; mouth open, eyes wide. Beneath her left breast was a deep red rosette of blood.

It wasn’t so much that people had died that bothered Charlie. That happened. He must have taken down his fair share that day. People died and he had little sympathy for those whose lives had come to an end. No, it was the cowardice of his two companions, the gall they had to leave him behind when they knew full well that the last vision they had of him was him running crouched in an effort to find his horse while bullets sought him out with every step.

As Drew and Troy fled, so he became the target of the town’s ire and had to bear the full brunt of their desire for vengeance. He didn’t blame them for that; he would have done the same, but his anger at his clumsy, cowardly companions made him fire in fury at those amateurs that fired at him and he knew that he had contributed without need to the number of dead that day.

How many times had he said to Drew, this was a business? They were not doing it for attention or for the fun of it. They did not want their names and faces all over the papers or on the wall of any sheriff’s office or tucked away in his desk drawer so that, some years down the line, he may take it out and see on it the face of the shopkeeper or whoever he had become. They just wanted the money.

‘Troy,’ said Charlie. ‘You have no voice of your own. You are a parrot, that is all. I never knew you to have a valid opinion of your own.’ Troy glared at Charlie and drummed his dirty fingers on the table. ‘Now, don’t get mad, Troy. There’s nothing essentially wrong with that, but it does kind of grate on me after a while, the way you have to sit there repeating what he says like some distant echo.’

He turned to Drew who smiled at the way Charlie talked. ‘State your business, Drew.’

Mary put some eggs down in front of Charlie. He thanked her and began to eat. Troy stared at the eggs the way that Drew had stared at Mary.

Drew straightened himself up in his chair. He sniffed at the strong, luxurious smell of the coffee and for a moment wondered how good it would be to have this every morning before proceeding with his chosen day. He wondered how it would be to have his own Mary, ready to serve him fried eggs in the morning and keep him warm at night.

‘You know Kendray?’ he asked.

‘Across the border? The Arizona Kendray?’

Drew nodded. ‘That’s the one.’

Charlie knew what was coming. Inside, he had already started to beat himself up over it. Ahead lay winter like the Ghost Of Things To Come. It would be a cold, harsh, knuckle ride. If the cold didn’t kill you, then the lack of good hunting brought you to the edge of starvation. He and Mary would survive, but somehow survival didn’t seem enough to Charlie Bucker. It never had.

He ate some more egg. ‘Go on,’ he said cautiously. He could tell that Troy was itching to say something, but did not dare.

Drew reached into an inside pocket and took out a roughly folded piece of paper. He tossed it on the table. Charlie did not touch it. He merely raised his eyebrows as a cue for Drew to explain.

‘That is an accurate representation of the bank in Kendray.’

‘How do you know?’ asked Charlie coldly.

‘What?’

Charlie leaned forward a bit, tilted his head and looked Drew in the eye. ‘How…do…you…know?’

‘I have it on good authority…’

‘On whose authority, Drew? On whose authority do you have it that this is a good enough representation of the bank in the town of Kendray, Arizona that I may risk my life trying to empty its safe?’

‘I know someone…’

Charlie stood up with such vigour that his chair spiralled across the room behind him. He picked up his pistol and marched around the table then held it to Drew’s head.

‘On whose authority, Drew?’ he shouted. ‘On whose authority? Do you trust him as much as you trust me right now not to pull this trigger? The hammer’s back. You and I both know what that means.’ He pushed the gun into the side of Drew’s head. ‘On whose authority, Drew?’

To give him his due, after his initial flinch, Drew got himself together pretty quickly. Either he had absolute confidence in the man who gave him the plans or he trusted in Charlie’s curiosity enough to know that he would not yet shoot him in the head. He sat rigid, upright, his eyes open, prepared for whatever may come.

Mary stepped to the table and took Charlie’s empty plate. Her feet upon the wooden floor were the only sound in that confined room. Everybody seemed to have stopped breathing. ‘Charlie,’ she said. ‘This is our home. If you have to shoot this man, take him outside.’

Everybody’s eyes fell upon her then, six furious, flaming eyes that each in their own way were seeing different colours in the same scene.

Then Troy burst into laughter. It was difficult to say if he thought it funny or if he was just plain scared, but he let out this bark then just collapsed into hysteria.

‘I can’t believe she said that,’ he laughed. ‘I can’t believe she said to take him outside like she just didn’t want his mess in here.’

Pretty soon, the three of them were laughing. The only one that wasn’t was Mary herself. She picked up the chair and put it back at the table, then stepped outside with an armful of damp clothing. With every step she took, she shook her head as if she was witnessing a display of lunacy.

Charlie moved the gun away and slowly released the hammer. With that he showed a change of intent and took his seat back at the table.

He drank his coffee as he let Drew and Troy run out of steam. ‘On whose authority, Drew?’ he asked again. The humour fell from Drew’s face. ‘I need to know,’ pressed Charlie. ‘If I am to trust you, I need to know. If I am to put my wellbeing into the hands of a stranger, I need to know.’

He made himself up another cigarette while Drew thought about it. Drew’s eyes flicked between the table and Troy, all the time steering clear of meeting Charlie’s eyes in case he should be intimidated into giving an answer.

Troy’s skit-skatty eyes just gazed at Drew. He was a clueless fool and Charlie knew that he had no say in any of this but to echo the words of Drew and, now that was taken away, he had nothing to say.

Charlie scratched a match into life on the table top and lit his cigarette. ‘Well?’

‘Okay,’ relented Drew. ‘Fine. But I swore secrecy on this so there would be no comeback on the man. You have to keep this to yourself.’

Charlie made a gesture of crossing his heart with his forefinger. ‘So long as it’s reliable…’

‘Oh, it is.’ Drew let out a deep sigh like he was about to confess in church. ‘My cousin, Barret Lacky…’

Charlie nodded. ‘I know Barret.’

‘Well, he worked at that bank for five years. He got fired…’

‘What for?’

‘What for?’

‘Yes, Drew. What for?’

‘There was this stuck up old lady came in the bank one day. She was a regular, a wealthy lady. One day, she came in with a bug up her ass, angry at something or other and accused Barret of stealing from her. Barret called her a lying fucking bitch and was fired on the spot. He never stole a damned thing. Turns out someone was stealing from her, but it wasn’t him.’

‘How long ago did this happen?’ asked Charlie.

‘About a year.’

‘What’s Barret doing now?’

‘He’s at the store, serving that old bitch whenever she comes in and she doesn’t have the decency to apologise. Bank manager comes in, same shit.’ Drew reached in his pocket and took out his own tobacco and made two cigarettes, one for him and one for Troy. ‘I was out that way and dropped in on him and he told me this tale and how he’d like to shoot both of them and I put the idea to him that maybe there was another way to get his own back.’

‘So there’s some distance between his being fired and today?’ asked Charlie.

‘Absolutely,’ said Drew. ‘He never said a thing out of place to either of them, never even gave them the beady eye.’

‘What does he want out of this?’

‘Ten percent.’

Charlie let out a little laugh as if he’d just heard some private joke in his head. ‘Ten percent of what?’

Drew pulled on his cigarette. ‘About forty-five thousand.’

Charlie went still. ‘Dollars?’

‘No, pesos! Of course, dollars.’

Troy laughed. ‘Pesos!’

‘That’s ridiculous!’ said Charlie.

‘Not so,’ said Drew.

‘Not so,’ said Troy.

Charlie shot Troy an evil stare and he dropped his head.

‘How is that possible?’ asked Charlie.

Drew smiled and leaned forward conspiratorially on the table. ‘By the grace of God, Charlie,’ he said softly. ‘By the grace of God. For wasn’t it Him that put all that copper in the ground and all that gold and all that silver? And wasn’t it Him that put Kendray right smack bang in the middle of that beautiful rich triangle so that Kendray’s bank just got bigger and bigger and fuller and fuller until it started sucking in money like a goddam tornado?’

Charlie leaned on the table and rested his head upon the first two fingers of his left hand. They pressed into his temple and ran small circles. His cigarette hung between his lips and he occasionally took a drag and narrowed his eyes as the smoke whirled up over his face. His blue eyes burned between the half closed lids; they were as clear as spring water and never lost their sharpness, no matter what.

‘And the law?’ he asked. ‘That place has to be like a bees’ nest, all that honey.’

Drew took out another map and laid it over the plan of the bank. It was hand drawn in pencil, divided into squares with the names of the buildings written in each one. The writing was neat and precise. ‘The Sheriff’s office is across the street. There are two sheriffs, one per shift, six am to six pm and so on. There are six deputies on duty at any one time. The whole street is lined with various businesses and is rarely empty during the day.’

‘And the bank?’

‘The bank has two security guards. One of them is stationed in a small booth with a peep hole. The booth has a metal lining of some sort. Any trouble, he sticks his gun out and starts firing.’

‘That’s a trifle risky with members of the public passing through.’

‘It would seem that they value their money more than their lives.’

Charlie laughed. ‘Rich folk! They don’t know the value of any damned thing. And the safe?’

‘The manager has the key. If for some reason he fails to produce it, Troy here will dismantle it with some strategically placed explosive.’

Charlie looked at Troy through narrowed eyes. ‘I knew there was a reason you were here, Troy. I thought it might be because you figured I liked to look at your horse’s ass as you ran away.’

Troy shook his head. ‘No.’

‘Where’d you learn to use explosives?’

‘I worked some years on the railroad.’

‘We’re not planning to build a tunnel, Troy. I’ve seen what that stuff can do. You underestimate it and you’re as likely to lose your head as you are to remove a safe door.’

‘I know what I’m doing,’ said Troy defensively.

Charlie stabbed a finger in his direction. ‘I hope so.’

‘So what do you say?’ asked Drew. ‘Are you in?’

Charlie frowned. ‘I don’t know. It’s big money, but it’s also big risk. Why can’t you two do it alone? Or with someone else come to that?’

Drew shook his head. ‘Can’t do it with two. Not with two guards and the public to watch.’

‘So why me?’ Charlie blinked slowly and creased his brow as if he had snapshots passing through his mind. ‘After what happened last time, you took an awful risk coming to find me. Up to a couple of months ago I would gladly have shot you upon sight. I confess, I still feel somewhat tempted.’

‘Your share would be in the region of thirteen and a half thousand. That would set you up for life; buy you a farm, some cattle or horses, whatever. I figured you weren’t too proud to turn that down.' He hooked a thumb at the door. 'And now you have a lady…’

‘She pulls no weight,’ said Charlie coldly. ‘Answer the question. Why me?’

Troy and Drew looked coyly at each other.

They are sly dogs, thought Charlie. They are sly dogs. They thought they could walk in here and appeal to my greed. They thought they could use my pride and my woman as leverage. They worked out every turn of the conversation and agreed, only in the last resort, to tell me the truth of why they want me to go along with them.

‘Come on boys!’ he said sharply. He slapped his hand down on the table. Troy jumped.

Charlie’s patience had a limit. So far he had shown good will when he could have simply shot the bastards and buried them in the sleepy, untouched land that surrounded the house. ‘Spit it out, dammit. You look at each other much longer you’re going to have to kiss, I swear.’

Drew held up a hand. ‘Okay. I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you what we discussed, so long as you give me your word that you don’t take offence at our reasoning.’

‘Christ Almighty!’ sighed Charlie. ‘If I haven’t shot you both by now, I’d say you’re on pretty safe ground. Wouldn’t you?’

Drew nodded. ‘I guess so.’

‘Guess so,’ said Troy.

‘Then get on with it.’

‘Well,’ said Drew. ‘The truth is, you’re just plain mean.’

'Plain mean,' agreed Troy.

Charlie sighed deeply and shook his head. ‘Well, that’s a grand statement coming from two such as you.' He prodded a finger at them. 'I would be inclined to say that shooting indiscriminately at a bunch of innocent people, killing three of them, including a lady, was in itself a pretty mean thing to do. Not to mention leaving town with one less than you arrived.’ He grinned tartly and pointed at himself.

'That's just it, Charlie,' said Drew. 'We confess, we are sneaky mean...'

Troy chuckled. 'That we are.'

'But we don't have your cool head.'

'No shit,' said Charlie.

Drew shook his head. 'Uhuh. We need a leader.'

'Well you had a leader before I seem to recall and you left him staring at a dead woman with her left tit blown half off!'

'Yes we did. And we feel ashamed.'

'We do,' said Troy. 'Deeply.'

Charlie got up and poured himself some more coffee. He looked out of the window and watched Mary hang their old worn clothes on the line.

She was a beautiful woman, inside and out. And she was smart. Like today, he thought. She knew I was on the verge of sending Drew to the Devil, she could tell that I had almost stepped out of myself and she knew that once I'd stepped out, they're would be no coming back. But what did she do? She reeled me back in, slow and easy like tickling a trout, with her humour and understanding.

The morning sun shone through her thin dress and showed off her body beneath it. Her hip was stuck out where she held the clothes basket, one leg straight, the other bent a little at the knee.  The sun picked out stray strands of her golden hair. It reminded him of the sun-filled cornfields of his youth, when he would run through them and feel the safety of the corn and the welcome heat of the new sun. It made him want to run his fingers through her hair, remove her dress and lie naked with her in the warming dew of the fresh day.

'Come back tomorrow,' he said quietly.

Drew and Troy didn't at first realise that Charlie was addressing them. His voice seemed distant.

Charlie turned to them. 'Go on now,' he said. 'Come back tomorrow. I'll have an answer for you then.'

 

'I don't like them. I don't trust them.' Mary looked out at the distant sky. It was bruised, beaten into submission by time and a dying sun. 'Especially that Troy,' she said. 'He's like a rat.'

Charlie lit a cigarette. His face lit up in the glare of the match, his eyes thoughtful and hard. The match died and he disappeared back into the shadows.

He could smell the ground as it cooled, the oppressive heat of the day dissipated to the point where the smell of the grass was released and the earth breathed again after seeming to hold its breath for the day. It had sweet breath.

'I don't trust either of them, Mary. They have no kind of honesty in them.' He took a long, slow drag of the cigarette, trying to squeeze every ounce of sweetness from the tobacco. The tip of the cigarette glowed and half lit his face in an orange light. It lent him a sharp edge. His straight nose and high cheeks appeared mountainous; strong, immovable, unconquerable.

'Then you must say no.'

He looked at her. He could just about make out her soft features and sense the kindness that ran through her like a vein of Kendray gold.

Yet she was of little account to him. He knew full well that her soft skin would soon enough turn to weathered leather, what with the dry winds and the excessive sun. The hard life would suck the tenderness from her and that vein of gold would turn out to have been no more than pyrite. They would grow into dependence and then indifference and in the end become oblivious to each other's presence. Death would be, if not a relief, then at least a release from the tedium of familiarity.

This was his view. This was how he saw the vista of life laid before him. He had never been able to feel attachment to another. He wished that he could limit himself to antipathy, but the truth was that any time spent in the company of another inevitably led to irritation and a need for distance. He had no compassion for his fellow man and felt no compunction in killing them. Adversely, he felt nothing by allowing them to live. He regarded them no more than he regarded the ants and other pests of this world - if they steered clear of his pantry, they would remain invisible to him. If they went near his sugar, he would stamp on them.

As to women, he had never felt that need for the lifetime bond that so haunted many men. He had no need to share and no desire to care. He had no want to bring children into this doomed, impenetrable world.  He had no desire to feel the fear of the married man or the terror of a father. He found no comfort in the promise of ready meals and the steadiness that came with the decency of the ordinary man. He had his own set of rules.

He had no idea what had forced him to hook up with Mary. He had assumed that, as they had drifted together, so they would drift apart, but they had not. They had become locked upon the tide and had simply allowed themselves to coast along with it.

There was comfort in her; in the steady rise and fall of her chest as he rested his head upon it, in her silence, in her laugh, in the way she glided around him and hardly made her presence known, in the way she would climb upon him when the need took her and enjoy him until they were both spent and tired and ready to fall into the deepest of sleeps in the open nakedness of trust.

'Then you must say no', she had said. Why? Why must he say no? Because those who made their livings by dishonest means were dishonest men? Because she simply did not like the two men who had called unexpectedly that dawn? Or because they threatened to tear apart the Heaven she had made among the fields and the pine trees? Because they might steal away her Adam from this Eden and leave her alone again?

He did not want that responsibility. He did not want to be the quicksand upon which someone built their life. He did not want her to grow old before him and know that it was because of him she had lost her youth.

If she could promise him the girl she was now for eternity. If he could promise her that he would not lose the ability to piss freely in later years or lose his hearing or his sight, that he would not catch the madness into which so many older people seemed to descend. If he could say for sure that he would not become resentful of her hold or contemptible of her familiar face. If they could capture themselves in this moment and never have to leave...

‘Will you do something for me?’ he asked.

‘If I can.’

He flicked away his cigarette. It spiralled into the darkness, fell to the ground and died. ‘Go home,’ he said.

‘Home? This is my home, Charlie.’

‘I mean home. To Wentworth. To your family. They are good people. I need to know that you are safe...’

‘You talk as if you’ve made up your mind.’

‘I have to go,’ he said.

‘But why?’ Charlie heard her voice break.

‘This,’ he said. ‘All this. It’s not me. In the end I will bring you little more than disappointment and hurt. This is not what I am.’

He didn’t lie. Despite the fact that he had not always been a good man, he had always considered himself to be honest.

Mary got off her chair and knelt next to him. It was not supplication or pleading, it was merely a way to be close to him and seek truth in the shadows; the set of his face, the blank candour in his eyes. Her own eyes were wet, but she held his gaze.  ‘Will I see you again?’

His hand hovered above her head. He longed to run it over her long, cool hair and in doing so reassure her that all would be well, but he could not.

He didn’t answer straight away. He had never been inclined to waste words or to say words that he didn’t mean or that meant nothing.

His hand fell and he stroked it through her hair. It was cool. It smelled as sweet as the grass. It was full of comfort and promises, but he knew that neither of these could last.

‘I will not be back,’ he said.

 

Kendray had civilised itself on copper, gold and silver and awarded itself with wide streets and fine three-storey buildings.

People walked with a confidence never seen in a town without money, wore clothes that those working the fields couldn’t dream about because they did not know they even existed.

The noise was something else. People shouted to be heard above others, the sounds of buggies’ wheels and a thousand horses’ hooves on the hard road sounded like some distant thunder. Coaches, not one but three or four, departed at speed for far off destinations. It was as if the East had dipped a toe into the West and come up smiling.

Charlie Bucker had been told what it would be like, but he had not been able to visualise such a scene. It was beyond his experience. It made him uncomfortable, filled him with foreboding that so many people should live in one place and accept their part in the anonymous chaos.

It brought to him insignificance. He did not want to know about that. He wanted to think that the man he saw in the mirror was the only man in the world, that he was the sun.

They said that there could be upwards of ten thousand people in this town on a busy day and half that at night. It made him feel claustrophobic,  threatened and angry. It made him want to tear it down and send each on their way with the promise that they would never invade his world again.

He knew though, deep down, that he was the invader. His world was not the real world; it was a small, unambitious, selfish world. It did not want interaction, it did not want accountability. It did not want the ways of others to impede his ways.

He wanted to retreat, to go back to his pine trees and his high-grass fields and pretend that this did not exist, that the world would not evolve into the hive which confronted him now.

Drew gazed in wonder out the window of the room. He was like a child with a new toy. ‘What do you think, Charlie?’

‘I think we can do it.’

‘Think we need to take another look?’

Charlie shook his head. ‘No. I think three times is enough.’ Two times too many was what he wanted to say.

‘Tomorrow then.’

‘Tomorrow it is,’ agreed Charlie. ‘Troy? You got your shit together?’

Troy sat in a chair, eyes closed, head back, his teeth bared in a fake snarl as his deformed lip sat upon them like a pale leech. He was indeed like a rat. ‘Yes,' he said tiredly, as if he had had enough of repeating himself.

‘You know not to use those explosives unless I say so, don’t you?’

‘Yes.’

Charlie stretched out on the bed and played with the pillow until it was right. ‘Then all we can do is wait.’

He closed his eyes and tried to imagine himself on the porch of that old wooden house in the fields. He tried to recall those pines as they stretched straight up into the blue. He tried to conjure the sounds of the grouse and the songbirds, the sound of the stream and the hard rain against the roof.

All he could hear was the rumble of the town, the constant, indistinct babble of people trying to be heard.

It occurred to him that he could not recall seeing a bird since his arrival in town on the Wednesday.

What kind of a man wants to live in a world without birds?

 

He did not sleep that night. He paced the room, naked, gesticulating as he mumbled in conversation with an unseen other.

Drew and Troy watched in bemusement and fear.

‘Get some sleep, Charlie,’ begged Drew. ‘We can’t rest for your constant pacing and murmuring.’

‘You have to sleep,’ said Troy. ‘You can’t murmur and pace all night.’

It was as if they weren’t there. Charlie was locked in some higher conversation, some dealings, some bargainings, with himself or God or the Devil. He clasped his fingers as if trying to reason with some philosophical other, then he would throw out his arms like a windmill and growl and snap as if reason had failed.

Come the dawn, Drew, who had at last succumbed to tiredness and fallen into a restless sleep, woke and saw him leaning at the window, smoking a cigarette, still naked, but silent. He rested against the window frame, his head upon his forearm and peered from beneath a creased brow at the new day. His thin, muscular body was relaxed, as if he was posing for a piece of art. Every now and then he would bring the cigarette to his mouth and draw upon it as if it held the elixir of life, hold the smoke in, then release it with an impossibly slow breath.

Drew tapped Troy on the chest to wake him.

Troy started, then focussed upon Charlie. ‘Is he sane?’ he whispered to Drew.

‘He is calm,’ said Drew. ‘I cannot vouch for his sanity. He is naked at the window, smoking a cigarette. More than this I can’t say.’

‘What are you boys whispering about?’ Charlie craned his head at them.

‘Just wondering how you are, that’s all,’ said Drew. ‘You didn’t sleep much.’

‘Not much at all,’ said Troy.

Charlie turned his head back to the window. ‘I’m fine. Are you fine, Drew? Troy? Are you both fine?’

‘We are fine,’ said Drew.

‘Have you given any consideration to the events of the day ahead?’

‘Not extra to yesterday,’ confessed Drew. ‘Should we have?’

Charlie frowned. ‘No.’

‘What were you thinking about, Charlie?’ asked Troy. Drew shot him a dark look.

Charlie moved away from the window and stood over them. He was a large shadow with the light from the window behind him. There was no nakedness to be seen, no face, no eyes from which to mine the truth.

He crouched down before them. His face was illuminated again. His blue eyes were cold and vacant, his face set in pale wax. He looked as if someone had moved out and left the shell.

‘I was thinking about how close to the animals we are. How these clothes…’ He tugged at the leg of Troy’s pants and forced him to back away a little. ‘…and shaving and combing the hair are just a way to fool ourselves into thinking that we are better than them. How our reasoning sets us apart because it is more elevated, more discriminate, yet all it’s about is eating, fucking and death. That’s it.’ He got up and sat on the edge of the bed. ‘What does it all boil down to any more than those three things?’

‘What about love?’ asked Troy.

‘Jesus!’ said Drew.

Charlie laughed. ‘Why, Troy. An independent thought. I never saw you as one who would consider such a thing as love.’

‘Well, why not? I need comfort as much as the next man.’

Charlie waved a hand at Troy. The cigarette between his fingers stuttered smoke across the air. It drifted into a weft of sunlight and danced a little before descending into the shadows.

‘That’s my point, Troy. You need comfort. Each of us enters into a relationship not for the benefit of the other, but for the benefit of himself. Have you ever heard of a thing called altruism?’

Drew screwed his face up. ‘Altru what? Is this some sort of religion you caught, Charlie? Now is not the time to get religion. Not on the day you are to rob a bank.’

‘Have no fear, Drew, this is not about religion, although religion is all a part of it, all a part of the big lie.’ He spoke fast, as if the thoughts in his head flowed so quickly that they couldn’t help but push them out of his mouth. ‘This is about truth and the truth is that there is no such thing as love, not in its purest sense anyhow. We fall in love why?’ Drew and Troy shrugged. ‘Because we like the idea. Because it raises us above our base selves. To claim that there is more to us than there really is cuts us off from the animals. But the truth is that we pair up because it’s the safest thing to do. There’s safety in partnership. That’s why we’re together now, us three. Hell, I sure don’t love either of you, but it benefits me to have you by my side at this moment in time. Tomorrow, you may try to take my food and I will kill you, because that is what I need to do to survive. We have children to ensure our names live on. It’s about possession, about ownership, about power. We find comfort for ourselves, not for the other. In the end, it’s all about eating, fucking and death. It’s about me, me, me. All the rest is bullshit.’

Drew ran a hand across his sleep-filled eyes. ‘Okay.’

‘Now you take me and Mary,’ said Charlie. ‘You take me and Mary. She fed me, she fucked me, she cleaned my clothes. She was pretty. Oh, my, she was pretty.’ He leaned in towards Drew until he was just a few inches away from his face. Drew could smell the stale tobacco on his breath. ‘You saw her. I saw you look at her. For a moment, just for the tiniest flash of time, you thought about how you could get her, take her away from me…’

‘No, Charlie…’

‘It’s okay. It’s okay, Drew, because that’s what we do. And…and…and if you killed me, then you would take her and she would move on to you because you would then be the top dog and you could take care of her. Do you see what I’m saying, Drew? Do you? Self, self, self. That’s all it is. Animals, Drew. We’re all just animals. Eat, fuck, die. Eat, fuck and die.'

 

Charlie walked purposefully up to the booth with the guard inside. No one paid him any heed. He was just one among many who criss-crossed the busy floor, their mind intent upon one task.

He stood before the booth, so that the man inside had no view.

‘Would you move please sir?’ came a gruff and uncompromising voice from inside the booth. The barrel of a revolver appeared at the lip of the opening.

Charlie grabbed the barrel of the gun and snatched it from the man’s hand. Clearly the guard had not been expecting such brazen audacity; Kendray had become a town on the edge of a comfortable sleep.

‘Hey!’ said the guard.

Charlie could hear him as he tried to grab a rifle. It was too long to be quickly taken up in such a confined space. It clattered against the walls of the booth, but the sounds could not be heard more than a foot away because of the density of the metal that lined the booth. The guard began to curse and make threats against the unseen gun thief.

Charlie withdrew a stick of explosive from inside his coat, lit the fuse and dropped it through the slit in the front of the booth.

He stepped aside as the man inside fought to grab the stick and throw it out of the booth.

There was a dull thud and all movement ceased.

The bank fell silent. All heads turned towards the noise. Acrid smoke billowed from the mouth of the  booth. Charlie withdrew his pistol and pulled back the hammer. In his other hand he held the dead guard’s revolver.

The other guard, a young man of Charlie’s age, but twice as big and undoubtedly employed for his size rather than his speed of thought, hesitated. He was weighing up his options, Charlie could tell. If he did nothing, he would live. He would be branded a coward for the rest of his days, but he would live. If he went for his gun, he would die.

In the second it took for such reasoning to go through his head, Charlie Bucker strode across the room, his arm raised, his long coat flowing behind him so he looked like some giant bird of prey and struck the guard across the bridge of his nose with the butt of his Colt. The guard fell to his knees, his hands at his face. Charlie pulled back the hammer and placed the gun against the guard's forehead. He pulled the trigger. A puff of smoke clung to the guard's singed skin as he fell sideways. The room held its breath.

Charlie raised the two pistols and aimed them at shoulder height towards the silenced, terrified customers. ‘My name is Charlie Bucker,’ he said to all. ‘I am the sun.’

 

He left in his wake a trail of death and destruction.

The people of Kendray had believed that civilisation had driven the animal from the man, that the vein of wealth that ran through them was now their life’s blood and that they had become untouchable in their eighteen carat hearts.

No one could recall the series of events. All they could recall was the devastation and the animal called Charlie Bucker.

They had never seen such hate.

 

The three men headed north, back up towards Utah. They put space between themselves and Kendray and kept going until just before nightfall, when they made camp.

Not one of them had much to say.

Charlie remained detached. The mania of the earlier day had subsided and he appeared exhausted. The waxen skin to which Drew and Troy had awoken had become grey and set in stone. He sat with a coffee in his hand and just nodded as if there was some internal conversation going on.

When he had finished his drink, he wordlessly gathered in the money they had taken and silently began to count.

Drew and Troy sat across the fire from him and watched his frame ripple through the heat of the flames. Drew rolled up some cigarettes. His hands shook.

‘What happened back there?’ he asked Troy.

Troy’s miserable eyes regarded Charlie with a mixture of fear and hate. ‘He did what we asked of him,’ he said flatly.

‘I didn’t ask him to do that.’

‘Yes, you did,’ snapped Troy. ‘We both did. We told him we wanted someone mean ‘cause we were too cowardly to do this ourselves. That was all the permission he needed.’ His voice trembled. He lit the cigarette that Drew gave him. ‘We invited the Devil to dance. We shouldn’t be surprised he trod on our toes.’

Drew grunted his agreement. 'There'll be some value attached to our names, that's for sure.'

'And him so keen to keep a low profile,' said Troy. He mimicked Charlie. 'We don't want our name in the papers or in the top drawer of every sheriff's desk. What the hell was that My name is Charlie Bucker and I am the sun bullshit? And Hey, Drew, don't forget to empty their pockets. Hey, Troy, if he don't give you that safe key, shoot him in the elbows. So now they know all our names and we'll all be hung for the same sickness that runs through that son of a bitch.'

They both smoked quietly and watched as Charlie moved money from one pile to another. It was not an insubstantial amount.

'How much we got there?' Drew asked Charlie, unable to clip his curiosity.

Charlie did not look up. 'I ain't done yet.'

'You must have an idea,' said Troy.

Charlie carried on counting. 'Stop talking, Troy.'

'A man can ask, can't he?'

'Not if that man wants an accurate count.'

'Well, how much're you up to?'

Charlie stopped counting. His shoulders sagged as he let out a deep sigh. He lifted his head slowly. It looked as if it had the weight of the world balled up inside it and he had to fight to hold it up.

He put the side of his hand next to his head. 'I'm up to here with you! With both of you!'

'We got a right to know,' pushed Troy.

Charlie jumped up, scooped up a handful of money and threw it at the fire. Some of it caught and rose with the heat, edges aflame as they pirouetted up and drifted aimlessly towards the dry scrub and the depthless desert darkness.

'That was yours, Troy,' he said. 'That was your money. Every time you open your ugly, deformed mouth, I'll throw on a little more. If I can't get you to shut the hell up with threats, then maybe I can buy your silence.' He pointed a finger at the ashes of the bills that fluttered and whirled slowly back down, jostled by the heat. 'That was a couple of good acres of pasture land I just burned up there. You have anything else to say?'

Troy gazed at Charlie with all the hate he dared muster. He shook his head.

'Drew?' asked Charlie. 'What about you?'

Drew stared at the ground. His black hair fell across his face and covered whatever feelings he may have had. 'I have nothing to say, Charlie. Nothing.'

Charlie lit up a cigarette. He regarded the two men with contempt. He'd heard them whispering, trying to justify the balls in their pants.

'Sixty-two thousand, two hundred and eighteen dollars,' he said. 'So far.'

'Christ almighty,' said Drew. For real?'

'For real,' said Charlie. He kicked at the pile of money at his feet. 'I reckon there's another four, maybe five thousand left to count. Now shut the fuck up, both of you or I'll split the spare eighteen dollars between you and take the rest for myself.'

 

Cash Johnson surveyed Kendray's main street. The world had closed in like the great, bottomless sea around a forgotten wreck and swallowed its memory. The flotsam of life - stray shoes, dropped parasols, food discarded in panic, hats, dried blood - lay in dribs and drabs, to be cleared away by the tide of time.

'Hello, Marshall.'

Cash turned around. Sheriff Pedersen's long shadow merged with Cash's upon the dry dust.

'Hello, Frank,' said Cash. 'Got here as soon as I could.'

'I appreciate that. You want me to run you through it?'

Cash dropped a ribbon he had found and had been running through his fingers. It was blue and new and would now never be used. 'Yeah.'

The two men sat in the Sheriff's office, each with a large mug of coffee. The sun forced the last ounce of its strength through the window and cast yellow-orange shards across the floor. Cash could still smell the heat, that familiar mix of warm soil and hot wood, the sweat of a throbbing town, horses, all whipped together by the smallest breeze that tried its best to blow out the light of day.

'I'm sorry, Frank,' said Cash. 'Up and coming town like this. It doesn't deserve what happened today.'

Pedersen rested his hands upon his belly and stretched his legs out. He was tired. Beyond tired. 'Thanks.' He took a sip of the coffee. It tasted bitter and stale. He ran his finger pensively around the rim of the mug. He had no idea where to start. Eventually, he said: 'They shot the bank manager through the elbow.'

Cash winced. 'To what end?'

'He was slow to hand over some keys.'

'How is he?' asked Cash.

'Minus an arm.'

Cash tutted. 'That's tough.'

'You know him? Gerald Hauter?'

Cash shook his head.

'He's fat,' said Frank. 'He's fat and balding and very amiable. He has a comfortable wife and a boy away studying out east.'

'He'll live though?'

'Doc says so.'

'And his livelihood?'

'You can run a bank as easily with one arm as with two, so I'd imagine.'

'It's not that though, is it,' said Cash.

'No,' agreed Frank. 'It's the fact that, even in these prosperous days, a stranger can walk up to you and, without a by your leave, put a mark upon you that changes you forever.' He lit a cigarette. 'Gerald Hauter is neither a brave man nor a coward. He's just a harmless, ordinary fellow who happened to stray into the path of a madman. They had no right.'

'It's hard to disagree.' Cash shifted uneasily. 'How may dead?'

Frank picked up a scruffy handwritten list. He ran his finger down it as he went through it. 'Eleven civilians. Two inside the bank plus the two guards inside the bank. They shot nine getting away, though Lord knows why, nobody got in their way. Scaremongering and confusion, I guess. One deputy was killed and two injured. I'd been over at the courthouse with Judge Ferraby. By the time I got there, it was all but over.'

'The young feller that came to get me...'

'Joe Baines...'

'That's the badger. He said you had some names.'

Frank reached forward and pulled some paperwork from a drawer. 'You know the name Charlie Bucker?'

Cash tugged at his ear and mulled over the name. 'Seems to ring a bell. I can't have brought him in. I'd have remembered had I brought him in.'

'Nobody's ever brought him in.’ Frank pushed the papers across the table to Cash. Cash picked them up and cast an eye across them. ‘According to those who witnessed the whole affair, this Bucker killed the two guards, then stood bold as brass in the middle of the bank and announced himself, then declared himself to be the sun.'

'Whose son?'

'No.' Frank pointed at the paling carpet of light on the floor. 'The sun.'

Cash frowned. 'I see. So why does his name seem familiar to me?'

‘You remember the robberies at Medina and Royston?’

‘Sure. James Wilson was assigned to them. He didn’t find anyone though, but the descriptions seemed similar so he threw the two in the same pot.’

Frank pointed at the paperwork in front of Cash. ‘This feller, Charlie Bucker, was mentioned and, if you read those, there was some consistency in his description. Then you may recall that mess over at Wombwell last year.’

‘I do,’ said Cash firmly. ‘I’m guessing from what you’ve said that this Charlie Bucker was tied in with that too.'

'I believe so. His two companions turned tail and killed two or three people on their escape. Bucker himself had to shoot his way out. Seem to recall one of those he killed was a woman. It was also thought that Bucker took a fatal wound during the incident. A deputy claimed to have hit him accidentally while trying to free himself from a tight spot.’

Frank got up and lit some lamps. They made the dark darker and cast a yellow glow over the two men. Outside, the night time businesses, the bars and casinos, bathed the street in a misty yellow. Anonymous shadows floated past the window.

‘Bucker then began to fire randomly,' continued Frank. 'With two revolvers. He escaped in the chaos. Several witnesses stated that they saw him holding his belly as he ran. There was some considerable amount of blood loss where the deputy claimed the incident occurred. He wasn’t seen again after that. There was a search for him, but when it turned nothing up, it was assumed that he had crawled away and died of his wounds.’

‘And today?’

‘The description matches his boast. Fair hair, about six feet.’ Frank screwed up his face. ‘I’m uncertain. It’s easy to use someone else’s name in order to deflect the blame. It could feasibly have been someone who knew Bucker, maybe someone who’d rode with him. We were never really sure about who’d rode with him before, except for one guy name Troy Lasiter. He was previously recognised through a deformed lip.’ He picked up a paper which had a rough drawing of Troy upon it. Apart from the lip, it could have been anyone. ‘His name was mentioned today by the one claiming to be Bucker. He’s known to ride with a man named Drew Sawyer. That name was also mentioned today. If that’s the case, it was a mite careless of Bucker to give out their names unless, as I said, they were trying to mislead.’

‘What’s your inclination?’ asked Cash.

Frank held his hands up as if weighing up an answer. ‘My inclination is that Bucker’s been dead for some time and that someone is playing games,’ he said. ‘Come on, Cash. How many tall, fair-haired men are there in this town? In this state, come to that? Most of these people are of German or some such descent. You see a man with brown hair in this place, you know there’s a pretty good chance he’s from elsewhere. A man with fair hair is ten-a-penny and, in the heat of the moment, you'd think they were all from the same mother. The only certainty is this feller with the lip. You find him, you'll go some way to solving this mystery.'

Cash sighed. ‘Well, I guess it’s my turn to go in search of this ghost. Where to start? Any ideas?'

‘Bucker, if that's the tack you're gonna take, came from a place called Oakwell, across the border. There’s a chance they might go back there. That’s all I have. If it is Bucker, then he’s kept his head low for just over a year.’

Cash laughed. ‘Maybe he found himself a girl, took to the quiet life.’

‘It’s always a possibility,’ smiled Frank. ‘If he’s not dead already. You want some company? The other sheriff, Rich Thomas, and some boys are back from a search. They’ll be eager to go out again once they’ve rested.’

Cash shook his head. ‘No, thanks. I prefer to go alone. You just give me the necessary paperwork and I’ll be on my way at first light.’

Cash picked up his hat and opened the door to the office. The sounds of night time Kendray filled the room. ‘By the way,’ said Cash. ‘I forgot to ask. How much did they get?’

Frank fished through the mess on his desk and picked up a scrap of paper. ‘Seventy-one thousand two hundred and eighty-six dollars,’ he read.

Cash whistled. ‘What the hell was so much money doing in one place?’

‘Didn’t you hear?’ said frank. ‘This is Kendray. We’re civilised.’

 

Troy pulled out his secret stash of whisky and swallowed a large mouthful. ‘Seventy-one thousand, one hundred and forty-three dollars!’

‘That includes the ashes,’ said Charlie.

‘Christ almighty!’ said Drew.

‘He wasn’t there,’ said Charlie. ‘We were.’ He picked up two bags and tossed them the way of Drew and Troy. ‘I make that twenty three thousand seven hundred and fourteen dollars each.’

Drew and Troy grabbed a bag each and weighed them in their hands. ‘Don’t feel like much,’ said Drew.

‘Feels like the future to me,’ said Troy. ‘I might go east, see one of those doctors you hear about. See if they can straighten out my lip. What about you?’

Drew looked thoughtfully at the bag. ‘A ranch maybe. Maybe a casino. Maybe I’ll go east with you and buy myself one of those big houses you hear about and just dandy it about. Get out of these clothes and buy me one of those tony suits. What about you, Charlie?’

Charlie threw some more wood on the fire. It was getting cold now that the sun was down. ‘All my life,’ he said, ‘I’ve been hanging around with scum like you…’

‘Now, hang on there…’

‘Shut up, Troy!’ Charlie’s eyes burned through the fire at them. They reflected the orange flames and gave him an animal glow. ‘I feel like the blood that runs through my veins is polluted. I feel dirty. I feel like, no matter how many times I wash my hands, whenever I lay my head down, I’m still gonna get the stink of you two. No amount of money’s ever gonna wash that away.’

‘You didn’t have to do this, you know,’ said Drew. ‘You could’ve stayed shacked up with that girl and told us to be on our way.’ Drew put his money down between his feet and took out his tobacco. ‘You can’t blame us for what runs through you, Charlie Bucker. You were dirty before we knew you and you’ll die dirty. You didn’t stay with that girl because you were too damned scared. It ain’t in you to be domestic.’ He put a cigarette in his mouth, picked up a stick from the fire and lit it. ‘As a matter of fact, now you’ve done with her, I might go looking for her myself.’

‘You’ll do no such thing,’ warned Charlie. ‘You will go east and keep on going ‘til you dip your fat toes in the big ocean on the other side of the world.’

He stood up furiously and marched around the fire towards Drew and Troy.

‘I was content before you showed up,’ he shouted. ‘You understand? I would have stayed there in that woodpile with her until I drew my last breath, but then you two had to come along with your big ideas and your temptations and drag me away.’

Drew stood up and faced Charlie. ‘You talk like an alcoholic, you crazy bastard! We didn’t tempt you. You succumbed to what was beneath the surface of that thick skin of yours.’ He stuck a finger under Charlie’s nose. ‘You ain’t capable of settling and sharing. We were just the excuse you needed to leave that easy quim behind. I could see it in your eyes. You were bored. As soon as we started talking about Kendray, the lights came on and you got excited about it. Don’t you deny it.’

Charlie pushed out and sent Drew stumbling towards the fire. ‘I deny it,’ he yelled. ‘I deny it absolutely. But you know what? You’re almost right, Drew, ‘cause I need no one. You all need me.' He stabbed furiously at his own chest. 'You and Troy and Mary, you need me. That’s why she clung to me. Without me, she would never have left Wentworth, and now look where she’s ended up. Back in the arms of Mom and Pop without a hope of escape. And That’s why you came to find me. Without me, you wouldn’t’ve taken the bank at Kendray. I bet you had those plans sitting in your pocket for months and every now and then you’d take them out and mull over them and wish you had the balls to do something about it. But you can’t, either of you, cause you’re cowards who need someone like me to bring you to life. Without someone like me, you’d just wither and die.’

The shot echoed off rocks and rolled away like thunder across the land.

Charlie looked down and saw a hole in his shirt. He watched in disbelief as a flower of blood bloomed across his abdomen.

Drew stared at him, took a step forward, then stepped back again, his eyes transfixed by the blood. 'Troy! What did you do?'

Charlie's hand scrabbled for his holster. Now Drew leapt forward and wrapped his hands around Charlie's gun hand. 'Leave it, Charlie.' He sounded to himself as if he was begging. 'Please. Just leave it.'

Charlie struggled against him. His face was pale, the veins on his neck erect as he tried to battle both Drew and the pain. He wanted to pass out. A peripheral dizziness trembled through his legs and spine and into his head. His hands lost their strength and fell limply by his side.

Drew stepped back and threw a punch. It was a wild, fear-filled punch that glanced the side of Charlie's head.

Charlie lost his legs and reeled sideways into the dirt. He felt Drew fumble at his holster and take his gun. He kicked out in a feeble attempt to fight, but an electric pain seared through his abdomen and into his groin. He curled up and tried to focus his eyes on Drew's feet. They seemed to fade from near to far with every breath he took and somewhere in the distance, a thousand miles away, he could hear someone shouting.

‘Shoot him, Drew! Finish him off.’

Drew stepped back and gazed in horror at Charlie. ‘You finish him off. You started it. You finish it.’

Troy jumped up and put his gun to Charlie’s head. ‘Hey, Charlie. You want to tell me to shut up now? Not so tough anymore, huh?’

Charlie opened his eyes. Everything swam and he vomited. As he did, so the pain shot though him again. ‘Troy?’ he said.

‘What?’

Charlie grinned, his teeth bared in a skeletal rictus. ‘Shut the fuck up!’

Troy hit Charlie across the temple. It didn’t knock him out, but it cut the skin to the bone. Fingers of blood streamed from the wound down his face.

‘You know what?’ said Troy to no one in particular. ‘I’m not gonna finish him off.’ He leaned over into Charlie’s ear and whispered. ‘I’m not gonna finish you off, Charlie. I’m gonna leave you here without horse, without boots and without water and let nature take its course.’ A string of spit fell from his wet mouth and mingled with Charlie’s blood.

He stood up. ‘Let’s get our stuff together, Drew. We’re leaving. Get the money.’ He laughed and slapped Drew on the back. ‘We’re going on a spending spree.’

‘You’re just gonna leave him?’

Troy considered the foetal, bloody mess that was Charlie. ‘Well, you know what? Yes I am.’

‘He’s gut shot, Troy. It could take him a day or more to die.’

Troy shoved Charlie’s revolver into Drew’s hand. ‘I’ll tell you what, Drew, you love him so much, you do the kind thing. Go ahead. I won’t object if you want to put him out of his misery like some broken back horse.’

Drew looked at the revolver. It was heavy and cold. He thought of all the things it had done, not one of them good, none that could be said to have made the world a better place.

‘Of course,’ said Troy. ‘You never know who might come along. He might be just hours from salvation, one way or another. I’m sure someone’s out there looking for us. I reckon by leaving him I’m giving him a fifty-fifty chance. That’s more than he would have given us.’

‘That’s no fifty-fifty chance,’ said Drew. ‘You know that as well as I do.’

Troy threw up his hands in despair. ‘Then shoot him, for Christ’s sake! Grow a fucking spine! Do whatever the hell you want to, but in a few minutes I’m leaving here with over seventy thousand dollars, with or without you.’

‘You can’t do that!’

Troy lifted his revolver and pressed it firmly into the centre of Drew’s head. ‘I can,’ he said quietly. ‘I will.’ He pushed the gun forward until Drew was forced to take a step back.

‘Okay,’ said Drew. ‘Okay. At least help me sit him up against that rock.’

Troy sucked in air through the gap in his lip. ‘Okay, but then we go.’ He lowered the gun.

They picked Charlie up under the shoulders and dragged him to a rock that would support him. Charlie groaned and drew up his legs. Drew went to Charlie’s horse and got his canteen.

‘No,’ said Troy. ‘No water. Fuck him. No water.’ He bent down and took off Charlie’s boots. ‘Ha!’ he laughed. ‘Anything that starts eating him can start at the toes.’ He slapped Charlie across the face. ‘Dip those in the ocean you son of a bitch.’ He spat at Charlie. ‘Oh,’ he said suddenly. ‘I have an idea.’

He went to one of the bags of money and rifled through it. A moment later he was back. ‘There you go. I ain’t totally heartless.’ He rested Charlie’s hands across his belly and stuck a dollar bill between them. ‘He can tip the waiter when he comes by to refill his glass.’

Drew and Troy gathered their things together. Without food, the fire had begun to die by the time they were ready to pull out. They saddled their horses. Lastly, they picked through Charlie’s goods and took what they needed, then unsaddled his horse and let it go. It wandered aimlessly away, unsure if this was freedom or just another form of bondage.

In the distance the sky was beginning to lighten. The new day began to slowly creep across the world.

Drew and Troy mounted their horses and, without looking at Charlie, rode away into a life of happy wealth.

 

‘It’s good of you to see me off, Frank. There was no need.’

‘I couldn’t agree more, but Ellie insisted that I gave you this apple pie she baked for you last night and some other foodstuffs, some extra coffee. You know what she’s like.’ He handed a package over to Cash.

‘You tell her thank you from me. You know, if she wasn’t already spoken for…’

 ‘There’s a queue at my back for that one,’ smiled Frank. ‘You’ll have to take your chances.’ The men shook hands. ‘Don’t you take any chances, Cash. There’s a certain viciousness about this affair.’

Cash mounted Pie and softly prodded him on. ‘I’ll let you know how it turns out.’

It was already hot. As soon as the sun had rounded the horizon, it had begun to bake the earth.

Rich Thomas had said that they managed to cover fifteen miles out. That was hard riding with a view to catching up rather than looking for signs. They assumed that the perpetrators would head as quickly as possible to the border and took that line.

At one point, unknown to them, they came within five miles of the Bucker Gang, as they were calling them for the sake of convenience. They decided to turn around once the day itself decided to turn. Joe Baines had gone to Thurgo for a marshal. He would have greater jurisdiction and the greater experience.

So, for sure, the Bucker Gang had managed at least fifteen miles, in one direction anyway. Cash could see no reason to disagree with the choices Rich Thomas had made. The shortest point from A to B was a straight line. All he had to do was figure where in the world lay B.

Oakwell was just across the border and would be a safe haven for a couple of days, if they kept a low profile. Bucker himself was known there, so he would probably be able to move freely among friends.

 

Cash Johnson dribbled a little more water into Charlie Bucker’s mouth.

‘Where do you think they went?’ asked Cash.

Charlie looked at his feet. ‘They took my boots, can you believe that? Why in the hell would you take a man’s boots when you’ve already shot him in the belly?’

‘Were they nice boots?’

Charlie reflected on the boots. ‘Actually, they were. Good leather, well worn in, but not so well-worn that you’d think they were on the turn, you know?’ Cash nodded. ‘And my gun. They took my gun. How long have you had that gun, Marshal?’

Cash took out his revolver and looked at it. ‘Since the war. I’ve tried others, but I kind of got used to this and didn’t feel comfortable with any other.’

‘Me too.’

‘So where do you think they went with those boots of yours?’

‘I’d’ve married her, I think.’

‘Mary?’

Charlie nodded and winced as a pain shot through him. ‘Yeah. She was a dream.’

‘Then why did you leave her?’

‘Well, Marshal, I was a clumsy child. If I touched any damn thing there was a fair chance that it would end up in pieces on the floor. My mother used to say that she only bought cheap stuff cause if they bought good stuff, it wouldn’t last five minutes in my presence.’ He smiled at the memory. ‘Truth is, cheap was all they could ever afford, but she was right, I was a clumsy child.’

He swallowed dryly. Cash dribbled a little more water into his mouth. Charlie nodded his thanks.

‘I was afraid I’d break Mary too. You see, I didn’t just break china, I broke people. I was incapable of sustaining any form of relationship with anyone. Friendships ended in fights and girls ended up with black eyes and broken hearts. I was exactly the kind of person I hated.’ He grimaced and waited for a spasm to pass. ‘It’s difficult to live with someone you hate. Nigh on impossible if it’s yourself. So I just kept running away but, everywhere I went, there I was, bold as brass, staring back at myself in mirrors and windows. After Wombwell…You know about Wombwell?’

‘I know about Wombwell,’ confirmed Cash. He lit a cigarette and gave it to Charlie, then lit one for himself.

‘Well, after Wombwell, I was pretty much in the same way I am now. Maybe not quite so bad. Those two sons of bitches had run off like the cowards they are as soon as trouble appeared, so I was riding hopefully when I ended up in Wentworth. Mary found me and, without question, took me home. Her parents, good Christians, helped me heal. I thanked them by stealing their daughter.’ He looked forlornly at Cash. 'At least I gave her back. She may not have been pristine, but at least they got her back.'

'Yes they did,' said Cash. 'And I'm sure they were glad to see their girl again.'

'I loved her though. Whatever that means.'

'I believe you, kid. I really do.'

Charlie was tired. His eyes closed and he drifted into sleep.

Cash went and checked the coffee on the fire he'd built. Pie still had his head down. He poured a cup and took a wary sip. It was hot and strong. He rooted through the package Frank's wife had made up and took out the pie. The smell made him realise how hungry he was. He hadn't eaten for some time.

The whole affair was distasteful. Charlie Bucker was a despicable man - Cash was in no doubt about that - and he could imagine him as a tyrannical leader, but there was something Cash found in the cowardice and flighty nature of his two companions that was even more repulsive.

He wasn't naive; he understood the worst of human nature. Lord knew, he'd lived with it long enough, but he could not stand disloyalty and greed, no matter who it came from.

He wished that Charlie Bucker had been a good man; he saw qualities in him that would have made him a good husband, a good father, a good lawman, a good businessman, but he was let down by an unwillingness to conform or compromise.

He wished that Charlie Bucker had been given the chance to be a good man, but then we all made our own luck and chiselled our own future, so he had no one else to blame.

He ate the pie and drank the coffee while he watched a single cloud pass lazily across the blue.

Where the hell did you come from? he wondered. And where the hell are you going?

He tipped out the coffee dregs and left the cup to drain on a rock.

'Don't stay in the sun too long,' he called to Pie. Pie shook his head and ate more browse. 'Well, don't say I didn't warn you.'

He picked himself up and went back to Charlie Bucker. He needed to rouse him and get what he could from him, while he still had time.

Charlie was dead when he returned. His eyes were half-open and empty. His hands remained upon his belly with the dollar bill clutched between his fingers.

'Damn!' said Cash. 'You couldn't have waited ten more minutes, you contrary bastard?'

He fished through Charlie's pockets. He found some tobacco, a small knife and a piece of paper.

He unfolded the paper. It had writing upon it, written in pencil, in a soft hand, yet full of anxious peaks and troughs and the minute gaps of hesitation. He began to read:

 

'Dearest Charlie,

I don't claim to understand your need to leave, despite your full and proper explanation. You said that this wasn't you, this life, yet I have never seen a man more content as I have seen you this past year. If I tried to hold on to you, then this may lead to resentment. I do not wish you to feel resentment, Charlie. I would not want to be the cause of one second of misery in your life. I want you to feel love and if that means being apart, then so be it. Remember me with love, Charlie, as I shall always remember you.

Your sweetheart,

Mary Bowes.

 

Now he saw it. Now it made sense.

Charlie Bucker was always going back.

He had thought that he would die and thus determined to cut himself off from decency. He had killed without a second thought and dismissed the false affections and forced companionship of his co-conspiritors. He had dedicated himself wholly to this one final test so that he could live the rest of his life with the woman he loved. He had shunned her to protect her, for if she waited for him and he hadn't returned, it would have been the cruellest of blows. If he had allowed morality or mercy to cross his mind just once, he would most certainly have been killed.

Judging by the well-worn creases, he had found this letter and read it a thousand times before setting foot in that bank. It had been the glue of his resolution.

'Damn,' said Cash again.

He put the letter back in Charlie's pocket.

He knew now that he had to go to Wentworth.

That was where Mary was and Troy Lasiter and Drew Sawyer were both aware of that.

 

Kendray had been an ostentatious town, full of the braggadocio the came with new wealth.

Wentworth was the antithesis of such unsubtlties, a town that was built upon old money and that had taken many years to grow comfortable with that. Its streets did not bustle, its buildings did not tower and its people carried on with the refinement of those comfortable with themselves. They had no need to prove themselves. They had the self-awareness that came with earned confidence and a certainty of their place in the world.

The bareness of Kendray was exacerbated by the avenues of Wentworth, those tree-lined streets that somehow brought the country into the town and made people feel as if they had the best of both worlds. It had a City Hall and a school, all in brick, and a district for business and a district for residence.

The roads on the whole were asphalt and the pavements asphalt cement. There were gas street lamps regularly spaced along the entire length of the main street and at night people walked, not to be somewhere, but just to walk, because they could.

Kendray was the boastful youth, strutting with fists up and ready to take on the world; Wentworth was comfortable middle-age and could afford to frown upon the Kendrays of this world until they too slipped into tree-lined, brick and asphalt maturity.

Cash Johnson found Wentworth a little overwhelming. The cleanliness made him want to take his boots off before he stepped on its streets. He considered himself to be Old West and not at ease with the sophistications of such a place. He knew that this was his problem and that the older he got, the more distant he would become from this shiny new world.

He and Pie made their way to the Sheriff’s office. It was pin sharp. He could well imagine the starch-clothed, immaculate man behind the desk.

With reluctance, he dismounted and entered the building.

He was greeted by a smile and an open hand.

‘Sheriff Pat Coltrane,’ announced the Sheriff. ‘What can I do for you? It’s not often we get a marshal round here. This is a pretty law abiding town. You want some coffee?’

Cash sat down, threw his hat on the sheriff’s desk and pulled out the paperwork from Kendray. ‘I’m looking for two men. One named Drew Sawyer, the other Troy Lasiter.’ He handed over the descriptions.

The sheriff took his time to read the papers, then shook his head. ‘I can’t say I recognise these people. We do have a fairly transient section of the population; passing businessmen, cattlemen, people stopping here on the way to somewhere else.’ Cash disliked the rather smug grin that appeared on the sheriff’s face. ‘Word is that pretty soon this will be a part of the railway system. I tell you, when that comes to pass, this town will explode. I’m on the up and up. Yes sir. In five years I reckon I’ll be mayor. Who knows what after that? Governor maybe.’

‘You never know,’ said Cash with disinterest. ‘Would you mind if I took a look around? This is a matter of some urgency.’

Coltrane squirmed a little. ‘May I ask your intentions towards these gentlemen?’

Taken aback, Cash said: ‘I intend to arrest them and take them back to Kendray for trial. And they are most certainly not gentlemen.’

Coltrane nodded absently. ‘I see.’ He leaned forward on the desk and locked his fingers. ‘People in this town are not permitted to carry weapons, Marshal. It is well sign-posted. We have a depository for those who come here unaware of our policy. What I’m saying is, I need you to restrict your actions to arrest and not go off on a killing rampage, so to speak.’

Cash bit his lip and spoke with all the sternness he could muster without causing offence. ‘Sheriff, I have been a lawman for over twenty-five years and have thus far managed to avoid any sort of killing rampage, although I did once shoot a man in the leg for backchat.’

‘I’m just saying that we tend to take a soft approach to the law in this town…’

‘So did the people of Kendray until these assholes turned up to disrupt their virginal naivety. Listen, I’m in here out of courtesy to you, Sheriff. I’m a US marshal and have jurisdiction up to and including your tight little asshole. I’ll tell you now, if these boys decide that they don’t want to stick by your no-guns policy, despite all your polite notices, and come at me with their weapons cocked and ready, I will shoot them down without compunction. Do I make myself clear?’

Sheriff Coltrane smiled tightly. ‘You do, Marshal. Abundantly so.’

‘Good, then I shall find myself a place to stay and lay my head for an hour or two before I commence my search. I’m hungry, tired and irascible. Do you recommend a place?’

‘The Apache Hotel is the usual place for important visitors to stay. Take a room there. Tell Mr Drummond the manager that the town will foot the bill.’

‘I don’t need that…’

Coltrane smiled tartly. ‘It’s policy.’

Cash took a deep breath. ‘One last thing before I go. Do you know a girl called Mary Bowes?’

‘Yes, of course. Her father is on the town council. She recently returned after some time away out east with relatives. The family lives on Torey Street. Why?’

‘Well, until I apprehend these bastards, I suggest that you assign a couple of men to watch her. I think they came here to do her some harm.’

‘Why? Why would they do that?’

Cash rubbed at his gritty, tired eyes. ‘You have to ask? After all that I’ve just said?’

Coltrane blustered. ‘You’re assuming I have men to spare.’

Cash picked up his paperwork, folded it roughly and shoved it into his pocket. He smiled thinly. ‘Mr Bowes is on the town council. Sure you do.’

He picked up his hat and slapped some dust from it. It clouded the air. The sheriff grabbed a ledger and wafted it away. ‘Until you can get men up there, I’ll go along and keep an eye out.’

‘Fine,’ sniffed Coltrane.

Cash went to the door. ‘One more question, Sheriff. Do you actually have anybody in your cells?’

‘Not at the present time, no.’

‘I figured as much. Wouldn’t want them to get dirty now, would we?’

 

The Bowes’ house was not as he had expected. It was a modest place, slightly distant from others, sat atop a hill. It had a picket fence front yard, white-painted windows and front door, and a porch that looked down the hill, that in the evening would catch the falling sun.

It appeared to be undisturbed.

Cash dismounted and tied Pie to the fence. Pie put his head down and sunk his teeth into the lush verge.

He would go once round the property, he thought. Maybe knock on the door, introduce himself, tell them there was an escaped prisoner hotfooting it around town and that they ought to be wary. That way he wouldn't alarm them by making it personal but they would remain aware.

He opened the gate and walked into the yard. The grass was well tended with an array of flowers at the border that shouldn't really have thrived in this heat. Somebody, the lady of the house no doubt, dedicated quite some time to this patch of land - maybe they employed a gardener to fluff it up a couple of times a week. He glanced along the street and peeked at the other yards. They were of a similar standard. He got the gist of it. It wasn't just about the yard, it was a competition. This was vicious social war. He laughed it off and thanked God he didn't live in a place like this.

He closed the gate behind him. It latched firmly. Between the lawns, a gravel path led to a glass panelled front door. The panel had upon it a picture of a deep red rose upon an emerald, unthorned stem. It stood out handsomely against the white painted door. It occurred to Cash that these kind of people put thought into every little aspect of their lives. That was too much like hard work to one such as him. A door was to keep what should be on the outside on the outside and a window was to see whatever happened to be on the outside in the first place.

He checked the door. It was firmly closed. He tried the handle. It gave and the door opened. He had expected it to be locked, but maybe this was one of those places where people didn't feel the need to lock their doors at night. There was no one in the cells, the sheriff had made that clear, so maybe this really was a content and peaceful town.

He poked his head through the door and listened. Nothing came back but the silence of an early morning home, the twitches and creaks as the warm sun brought the cold-blooded sleeper to life.

Yet there should have been more. He had smelled cooking as he and Pie had ambled along the street. He had heard muffled shouts and conversations. He had seen windows flung wide and doors propped ajar to release the muggy fug of night.

There was none of this here, just polished wooden floors, empty seats and the faint odour of last night's meal.

Reluctantly, Cash stepped into the house. His hand hovered automatically over his holster, ready to summon his old Peacemaker into action. His boots fell heavily against the wooden floor, but the latch on the gate had already squashed the element of surprise for anyone on the alert, so he persevered as gently as he could.

He found the girl's parents in the parlour. No time had been wasted upon them. A single bullet to Mrs Bowes's heart had dispatched her. Her pale lips were turned into a frown, her dull eyes fixed upon the rug. Mr Bowes had lost his left eye. A large amount of his skull and the tissue within had stained the back of his chair and the wall behind him.

Cash took it all in with a glance. He had seen it and worse a hundred times before. Later he would think about it, wonder what went through their minds at the moment of death; the fear they had for each other, a small prayer for their daughter, a sudden realisation that God might have been a lie. Right now though, they were motivation, cause and effect, an aide memoire when the moment came to summon up the courage to go one step more.

For the moment though, what he saw was that the blood lacked any of the fresh redness of a new bleed, that it had become blackberry dark and that whoever had killed them had done the deed some hours ago. It was unlikely that they would still be in the vicinity.

He took out his revolver and made his way upstairs. Mary was on the landing. She was naked and bruised and had a curtain tie around her neck.

Cash felt the breath stutter from him. He went into a bedroom, grabbed a sheet and lay it over her.

He had made no promises, given no reassurance, but he had wanted to save her for the sake of Charlie Bucker, because she had been the one good thing that he had ever known, the one person he had ever loved, the only living thing in the world to soften his heart.

He had done what he had done in the hope that he would see her again. She had become his sun and in her light he had hoped to thrive.

Now they were both dead.

Cash put away his gun. He descended the stairs and marched outside. He met two deputies.

'You're too late,' he said. 'They're all dead.'

The two deputies, neither of them older than Charlie Bucker, stared open mouthed as he strode past.

'Take care of my horse,' he demanded. 'You can do that, can't you?'

'Where are you going, Marshal?' called one of them.

'On the rampage,' he said.

 

He went to the stables and asked the man who managed it if a man with a deformed lip had left his horse in his care.

'Yes,' said the man with excessive cheer.

Had he collected it yet?

'He has not,' said the man.

What about the man with him?

'The feller with all that hair?' He ran his hand over his bald head with a twinge of envy. 'His horse is still here too.'

Where were they staying? Did he know?

He had recommended the Apache, but they had said it was a little gaudy for their needs, so he had directed them to the Quarterstaff, a less upmarket hotel that was still comfortable but less popular, it being more on the edge of town and therefore quieter. That was where they had gone.

Cash showed him his paperwork. He told the man to shoot the horses rather than let their owners take them. He said if they got away on them, he would arrest him for obstruction of justice. It was bullshit, but he didn't know that.

Cash then walked across to the Sheriff's office. He made no further introduction.

'I'm going to the Quarterstaff to arrest or kill Drew Sawyer and Troy Lasiter,' he said. 'If you want to come, it's up to you, but there's three bodies in the Bowes house and those two sons of bitches did it.'

Before Coltrane could reply, he had gone.

As he walked up the street, he heard the Sheriff's footsteps tap-tapping quickly upon the pavement behind him.

'Hold on, Marshal. There's a due process of law to be gone through, warrants to be filled out, judges to inform...'

Cash stopped and turned on his heel. 'Now you listen to me, you pristine, jumped up, excuse for a lawman. While you were sitting at your desk polishing your badge, two murdering cowards came into your town, with guns, despite all your notices, and killed a family so that they could take out some pointless revenge on a man they had shot and left for dead in the desert.' He loomed over Coltrane as he talked. 'Now, I don't give much of a damn for your councilman or his wife and their pretty flowers and painted windows, but Mary mattered. She mattered, God dammit, because for a short time she made a difference to someone who didn't think there was a difference to be made. In my world that makes her a rarity. In this world...' he waved his angry arms at the empty refinement around him, '...this money-drenched, concreted, soulless world, well, her death must make the likes of her extinct.'

He turned and began again to go towards the Quarterstaff.

'If you're with me,' he said, 'keep up. If not, stay out of my way.'

'You're abusing your position, Marshal,' called Coltrane after him.

'Damn right I am!' muttered Cash, then more loudly: 'Damn right I am!'

 

The Quarterstaff did not quite live up to the epithet of hotel. It was more of a boarding house with extras, but it had a homely warmth for all that.

Cash walked cautiously in. To his left was a large room with a long, highly polished dining table around which were placed equally well polished, plain-backed chairs. The room doubled as a parlour, with more comfortable chairs placed at the far and of the room.

Three men sat at the table eating breakfast. He recognised none of them.

'Help you?'

Cash turned to the the proprietor, a kind-looking, middle-aged lady who was losing the battle with gravity, but had the air of someone's mother. He explained who he was and she accepted it without question.

'I'm looking for a man with a deformed lip. He's travelling with a man with long black hair and a beard. Are they here?'

'What do you want with them?' she asked nervously.

'They are murderers,' said Cash.

Despite her shock, the proprietor kept her calm. She deflected her anxiety by undoing and retying her apron.

'They are in the first two rooms on the left at the top of the stairs.'

'You should vacate those you can,' said Cash.

She nodded. 'Don't destroy my home, please Marshal.'

'I will not,' he said. 'Not if I can help it.'

She set about busily ejecting the incumbents while Cash waited. This done, he ushered her out and made his way up the stairs.

Outside what he had been told was Sawyer’s door, he stopped and listened. He could hear deep breathing that verged on the edge of snoring. He waited to see if the pattern changed, but the rhythm continued.

Cash crept quietly to the next door and did the same thing. He could hear nothing. He got down upon his knees and peered through the gap between the base of the door and the floor. There was no movement, but he could smell fresh cigarette smoke and heard the impatient drumming of nails against a bedstead.

He had choices; he could go into the street and wait for them to emerge. The only problem with this was that they may not come out and by the time they did, that idiot Coltrane might have got it together and taken over the affair – this was still his town. Neither did he wish to endanger any passing member of the public. Also, if he waited, Cash was afraid his anger would subside and that was not something he desired.

So into which room should he go? The sleeper or the smoker?

‘Marshal?’

The call was loud enough to wake the house. It was Coltrane.

‘Marshal, I demand that you come down here now.’

Cash curled his lip at the noise. He was half-tempted to go down the stairs and shoot him. Instead he declined to answer in the hope that the sheriff would go away.

He heard Troy Lasiter get off the bed. Even in his bare feet he could hear him pad across the floor and stick his ear to the door.

‘Who’s out there?’ called Troy.

Cash cleared his throat. ‘Jackson, from across the hall,’ he said.

‘You a marshal?’

‘A marshal? No, that’s my name. Marshal Jackson. From Virginia. Travelling salesman of…ladies underwear.’ Cash cringed inside.

Coltrane marched upstairs with all the subtleness of a horse. ‘Dammit, Marshal. Let me deal with this.’

Troy’s door flew open. He stood half dressed in the doorway. He saw Coltrane bumbling up the stairs and shot him in the face. Coltrane fell backwards.

Thinking Coltrane was on his own, Troy stepped out of the room. Cash whipped the butt of his pistol across his nose and felled him.

Behind him he heard Drew Sawyer as he tried to put on his trousers.

‘Drew Sawyer,’ called Cash. ‘Come to the door with your hands visible, Drew. You are trapped in that room. If you go out the window you will sure as hell break your leg and then I will shoot you like a useless horse for making me come after you.’

The door splintered as Drew fired at it.

‘You have just ruled out any further negotiation, Drew. Your partner’s dead and you have nowhere to go. You’ve tried to shoot me, now I am obliged to shoot you. Fill your gun, cause you’ll only get one chance.’

He leapt across the doorway and picked up the unconscious Troy. ‘I’m coming in, Drew,’ he yelled. ‘You’d best be ready.’

With an effort, he held Troy’s inert body before him and flung him repeatedly at the door.

Drew fired until his gun was empty. After the final shot, Cash threw Troy aside and kicked in the door.

Drew held up his pistol.

‘Why’d you kill her, Sawyer?’ asked Cash. ‘Why’d you kill Mary?’

Drew pointed at Troy’s lifeless body. ‘It wasn’t me. It was him. He strangled her. I just fucked her, that’s all. We both did.’

Cash fired. Drew’s great frame froze as a plume of smoke coughed from his chest, followed by a darkening of his black shirt. Then his legs gave way beneath him and he crumpled to the floor.

Cash held his gun upon him for several minutes. He was afraid that he would move again, that he could see his chest rise, that he could hear him breathe. He had the crazy, fleeting thought that Drew Sawyer may have been unkillable and that he would have to stay guard over him for ever, so that he couldn’t fracture the world again.

 

He found the money under Troy’s bed. He took some of it and made sure that Mary and her family had a good funeral.

Two days later he came back with Charlie’s body and gave him a good burial too.

He returned sixty-two thousand, five hundred dollars to the Kendray bank.

They did not complain at the loss.

 

Cash thought often of Mary and Charlie. He always felt that, despite Charlie’s wayward ways, they were still owed a life together.

Some say ghosts are made up of many things; of the crick and groan of night-time wood; of the bloody stain of death upon stone; of the final thoughts of those who have passed; of the memories of others.

They say that when those who knew them have themselves passed away, then the ghost will rest, deprived of the energy that comes with the remembrance of others.

So, Mary and Charlie would live a little longer; Cash Johnson would speak of them wherever he went; in cities and towns, hotels and homes and, long after he had finally gone to his rest, they would live upon the lips of others.


© Copyright 2020 Christopher Bradbury. All rights reserved.

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