Innocent

Katherine Barlow was tired.

She hadn't slept for days. The truth of the situation she was in had fully hit her not long ago. She was a murderer. She'd killed the sheriff. She'd stolen a horse. She'd run away.

She'd watched her lover be killed.

Sam...forgive me.

She was a murderer now. The enormity of this was hard to take. She had been a schoolteacher...polite, kind, intelligent, sweet. Now there was probably a warrant for her arrest. She didn't know what would happen if they caught her.

And sometimes she wondered if she cared.

She hadn't slept for days because she kept having the same nightmare. First, a sort of flashback. She would be sitting in the classroom, reading Shakespeare to her class. Hamlet, she seemed to remember it as, although it could have been any of them really. She remembered Linda Miller's voice piping up "But he's a murderer!" and her own voice saying "Yes, but do you feel sorry for him?"

And then the dream switched to the water. She was drowning. She heard the shot and knew Sam was dead. She thought she was about to die. She hoped so.

Mostly hoped so...

She would feel someone pulling her out of the water. It would almost always be Trout, but sometimes it would be Hattie Parker. Sometimes it would be Linda. Sometimes it would be a boy she didn't recognize...a large boy, with thoughtful and often confused eyes.

When it was Trout, she wanted to kill him.

She tried...tried so hard...but she never could.

She hated that so much.

She'd ridden for ages. She knew only vaguely where she was heading. The next town...she'd forgotten it's name. She'd been there once when she was younger. She remembered it had an inn called the Dead Fish.

She could stay there. It seemed better than nothing.

Night was falling. She used to like the stars, now they just seemed...pointless. And annoying, in a way. The way they just stayed happily shining up there when so much disorder and death happened beneath them.

As if they didn't care.

They had said that God would punish her. Had He done that already? Was the lonely feeling in her heart her punishment? Or was the true pain coming later?

And what had she done to deserve the punishment? She had fallen in love. She had loved with all her heart. There was nothing wrong in that. God would not punish people for love.

But her faith in everything was slipping away.

She could see a town up ahead. She was here at last. As she approached, she passed a sign with the name of the town painted on it.

Vulture's Hole.

*****

Katherine spent the night in the Dead Fish. She had managed to sleep better this time...still nightmares, but not as bad. The boy with the thoughtful eyes had pulled her from the water this time. He had had blood and blisters on his hands.

And she had held his hand, so there had been blood on her hands too.

She sat on the bed, trying to work everything out in her head. She was no longer Katherine anymore, that she was sure of. Katherine would not have killed a man. She was Kissin' Kate Barlow now. It seemed a good name. She had given the sheriff the kiss he had demanded, after all.

She was an outlaw.

Did outlaws have rules? Her school had had rules, and she had expected that both the children and the adults alike followed them. She was creating a set of rules for herself now. Don't kill anyone unless they deserve it. Don't injure anyone unless they deserve it.

There were rules everywhere. It was a rule...a law...of Green Lake that a Negro not kiss a white woman. Sam had broken that law. So had she. And she was glad. What a stupid rule it had been.

Except if it hadn't been broken, Sam would still be alive.

Should I have ignored my feelings then, to protect him?

But she had a feeling that wouldn't have worked. From the moment she had met him Sam was fated to die. She felt tears prick her eyes.

Thou shalt not kill was a rule as well, wasn't it? And they all...except Sam...had broken that.

*****

She tried to sleep some more, but she couldn't. She sat on the bed and looked at the pathetic collection of pocessions she'd brought with her. Her pistol. It had belonged to her father. A collection of poetry, in a book small enough to fit in her pocket. She'd read it out to the class countless times. Once Sam, fixing the window, had finished the poem for her. She'd also brought a sleeping bag and a change of clothes. Not much money. Maybe she'd have to steal some.

But she wouldn't kill anyone to get money. She knew other outlaws did.

She wasn't just an outlaw, she decided in her head. She was out to right a wrong. What had happened to Sam had been the wrongest thing she'd ever seen in the world. She would put it right...she had to.

Somehow.

There were noises outside. She wasn't bothered. She leaned her head against the dirty wall. She missed Sam so much. She missed the taste of peaches.

She longed for home. But she couldn't go back.

The noises were getting louder. They were voices shouting. "Kill him!"
"Hang him!"
"Let him know he can't have our women!"

What was going on?

She looked out of the window. There was quite a large crowd. People were leaning out of windows below her, as well. There was a gallows in the centre of the crowd. A hanging was taking place.

A man stood on the trapdoor. Even from where she was, Katherine could make out his facial features...and the colour of his skin. She felt sick.

How can people do this? How can we do this? God, do you mean for these things to happen? To us? Him? Me?

The townspeople were still chanting and yelling.
"Should have a slower death!"
"Kill him now!"
"Bet you wish you'd never kissed her now, you filthy little-"

As if it was somehow written in her fate to do so, Katherine Barlow ran for the door, her pistol in her hand. She didn't even realise it was in her hand until she was down the stairs. She ran out the door, and then was lost in the crowd.

She could still see the gallows, though. A offical-looking person was speaking.

"For this crime commited against the whole town..."

She started sliding and slipping through the crowd. People paid no attention to her. They were too caught up in their hatred.

"...you are sentenced to death by hanging..."

Out of the corner of her eye she saw someone standing in the shadows. For one fleeting second she thought it was Sam. It wasn't.

"May the Lord have mercy on you."

The executioner pulled the lever. The rope dropped. Katherine raised her pistol and shot.

*****

"Katherine?"

Fifteen-year-old Sam was leaning over the fence. He eyed the pistol in her hand with some nervousness.

"What are you doing?"

Katherine blushed. This was not the sort of hobby it was considered proper for a young lady to have. But...it was only Sam, he wouldn't mind her doing this.

"I...borrowed my father's pistol," she said. "My brother is allowed to use it, so I saw no reason why I shouldn't be."

Sam nodded.

"I'm practising my aim."

Sam nodded again. "Don't let Hattie or anyone catch you doing that, they'll tease you."

"I know."

She'd set up targets on the branches of the trees. Empty cans and things no-one would miss. She pointed the pistol and mentally crossed her fingers.

She hit every single target.

Sam looked very impressed. "You've got good aim," he said.

Katherine nodded, secretly elated. Then, suddenly, she saw her mother looking through the window. She looked most displeased and disapproving. Of her and Sam both.

She put the pistol down and turned to speak to her friend.

But Sam had gone.

*****

The shot rang in Katherine's ears. It was impossible. It had to be impossible.

But the bullet went cleanly through the rope. The man fell to the floor, hurt but alive. A great gasp came from the crowd around her.

It was impossible. It was some sort of destiny.

The man struggled to his feet. There were raised voices everywhere again. Then he ran. People chased him. Katherine raised her pistol and shot into the sky. No-one caught him.

They turned to her. She felt arms grab her and drag her to the centre of the crowd, where the executioner was waiting. She felt like she was dead already. She was dead, she had died along with Sam, and this was her ghost, out for revenge...

They pushed her up against the gallows. People yelled.
"Who are you?"
"You're not from round here."
"What have you just done?"

She shot into the air again. There was some screaming. She jumped up onto the gallows, and pushed the executioner down into the crowd.

"My name is Kissin' Kate Barlow. And if any of you brainless goons try to oppose me, I'll kill you."

There was a silence.

"I'll kill you!"

"What the hell do you want?" someone yelled from the crowd.

"Change your laws," she yelled back. "Your laws regarding who can love and who can't." Something else came into her head. "And give me money. And let me go. I'll never come back. I wouldn't want to. This town can burn to the ground for all I care!"

And the crowd was silenced again.

She stayed by the gallows until the town sheriff came and escorted her to the jail. He took her pistol too. He said at the end of the day he'd give it back and let her go, as long as she never came back. She didn't protest. She felt empty. She'd just saved a man's life...but she almost certainly would have let him die if it meant she could somehow go back and save Sam. And that, in turn, made her feel guilty.

*****

It was midnight when she was let out. She went back to the inn and gathered her pocessions, and then went back to find where she'd left Jaffy. That was the name of the horse...she'd named him herself. She'd decided to stop calling him simply 'the horse she'd stolen'.

But on the way, she saw someone watching her. It took her a moment to work out who he was...he was the man she'd thought was Sam.

Ordinarily she would have asked "Is anything the matter, sir?" But that was before. She'd died along with Sam. Been killed along with Sam.

"What are you looking at?"

He didn't look away, he wasn't intimidated. "I'm looking at the woman who just saved my brother."

Her jaw dropped; she quickly closed it. "You are? I mean...you are."

"Tell me, girlie...why'd you do that?"

"They were going to hang him, and he hadn't done anything." She just remembered to add "And don't call me girlie...I have a pistol. I could shoot you and not loose a wink of sleep over it."

"Somehow I doubt that," the man said. Katherine, of course, doubted it too. "Answer the question, anyway. Why'd you save him?"

"Because I heard people talking...he was clearly innocent."

"Ah, but not from their side of things."

Whose side was he on? "I care nothing for their side of things. This town can go to hell."

"Now, now...I wouldn't go that far. Haven't you ever killed an innocent person before?"

"No, and I don't plan to."

"Then you won't get far out here. No-one can take the law into their own hands and not have a few people caught in the crossfire."

"I've only ever killed one person on my life, and that was the sheriff who was going to hang-" She stopped immediately, but the man was looking at her.

"Ah, so there was another reason."

"I want the injustice I've seen displayed to end-"

"You use a lot of long words," he interupted her. "You won't get nowhere by just talking."

He had sucessfully made her feel like a stupid little girl. She turned to leave, furious.

"Thank you for saving my brother," he told her.

She stopped. "I didn't exactly save him. He ran out of town. He could have been bitten by a rattlesnake...or a lizard...or anything."

"He can look after himself." The man sounded almost amused. "Anyway, my lady...tell me your name?"

In future years to come she would have no idea why she'd told him. "Kate Barlow."

"Ah."

There was no mistaking what that meant. "You knew who I was? You did! And that means you know..."

"Sam." He ignored the sudden look of grief on her face. "Onion Sam. Knew him when we were both kids. His family was the only other black family we knew of, see, and vice versa. I remember his dad...he used to pick onions too, you see. Must've shown Sam where to pick them."

Katherine felt weak. "And you know what happened to him?"

"News reached me."

"I see,"

He suddenly stood next to her and looked into her eyes. "I have a piece of advice for you. Go home. Don't forget about Sam...after all, if it had been James hanged I wouldn't have forgotten in a hurry...but go home all the same. There's not anything you can do, understand?"

"Is this just because I've decided to achive my objectives with as little blood spilled as possible?"

"There go go again with the long words...girlie. You ain't made for this kind of life. Kill or be killed. The strong survive. You're a schoolteacher, aren't you? You know about nature. How it's meant to work."

She realised her fingers were closed around her pistol. "I was a schoolteacher."

"What are you now?"

The night air was humid and it was closing in around her. She thought of her own bed, in her own home, in her own town...but how did she know it was even still there? They'd taken her lover, her job and her schoolhouse, how did she know they hadn't taken everything else too?

"Well, I'm not what I was. I'm Kissin' Kate Barlow...apparently."

"Thought of that name yourself, huh?" She nodded. "Most outlaws are named by the people trying to catch them."

"I kissed the sheriff after I killed him. I don't think it'll take people too long to get used to my new name." When he didn't say anything she added. "And I could kill you if I wanted, and kiss you too."

"You're playing a dangerous game." he said, unconcerned.

"This isn't a game...and I'm not going home. Ever."

"Suit yourself," he said, and put his hat on his head. "I'll leave you to it then...Miss Katherine. But if you really do intend to right a few wrongs...I'm warning you now, you won't be able to stay innocent while doing so."

Then he walked off into the night. Katherine blinked back some tears.

She was not going home. Her home was with Sam, and he'd been taken from her.

The man was just a shadow in the distance now. He could be anyone. Friend or enemy. Rescuer or killer. Black or white.

She shot him.

Then she gasped, her hand shaking. She ran towards him. She had done it now. She was as bad as those she hated...she was worse. Sam...oh Sam...

But he stared up at her, furiously. He wasn't dead. She'd shot him in the leg.

She struggled to bring Kissin' Kate into her.

"Let that be a lesson to you," she snapped coldly.

"Lesson...observed, Kissin' Kate Barlow," he said inbetween gasps of pain. Kate stared at him, not knowing why, maybe she was wondering what to do now, maybe she was lost...and then she turned and left him there.

Hopefully he wouldn't die. Someone would hear his yelling.

But no-one could hear hers.

She was never going home now.

THE END