Murderers

It was an unpleasant night. By unpleasant, I mean too hot. I can't sleep in the heat. I like the cold. I need the cold. So I couldn't sleep, and that was why I was up and about, doing small tasks for the other lazy slackers. I sorted Luke's things back into his suitcase, polished George's shoes so he wouldn't have to do it himself in the morning (he always has to look neat, for reason I don't understand) and checked everyone's backpacks to make sure we had enough food. Everyone just leaves their things lying around when we sleep in the wild. We trust each other not to steal.

I don't know why.

I wondered whether to cook breakfast, but it seemed too early. So instead I went to one of the suitcases, which was stacked up and well hidden in the bushes, and counted the money.

We were rich. Richer than we were previously, even. That Stanley Yelnats must have been the well-off type. His face when we rode off and left him...it was pretty funny really.

I suppose he's vulture food now.

Quite a cruel death, really. To die of thirst alone in the desert. Can't help but think it would have been kinder to shoot him. We almost did. Kate killed the coachdriver, laughing as she did so. Her laugh sends chills down my spine every time I hear it, even though I hear it almost every day. It's like something else is laughing through her.

Anyway, she shot him, and pressed her lips to his forehead. Then she turned on the old man, smiled as his shaking hands reached for the suitcase, and then pointed her pistol at him.

"Don't!" the old man pleaded. "I have a family."

Kate twirled the gun around on her finger. "Do you now?"

He nodded, sweat pouring down his brow.

"Well, boys," she said, turning to us. "What do you think? Be a pity to kill such a dedicated husband and father, wouldn't it?"

Me, George and Luke exchanged glances. We all had a feeling that no matter what we said, Kate would do what she wanted anyway. Still, no harm in trying.

"Not bothered. Kill him." George said. I thought she would then...she respects George. I don't know why. But no...she was stopping. Uncertain. She was looking at the man's terrified face in a way I'd never seen before.

And then Luke spoke. "Why don't we just leave him here?"

Kate looked at him.

"Out here in the desert?" he went on nervously.

Now, Luke is the youngest of us. Fourteen or fifteen, if that. He has a baby face and doesn't intimidate a soul. Why she listened to him in that moment I will never know.

"That suits me," she said, and smiled a wicked smile. She leaped off the toppled stagecoach and onto her horse. We rode away, none of us looking back. If Stanley Yelnats yelled after us, none of us would have heard him.

After I'd carefully counted the money and put the suitcase back, I wandered back to where the others were sleeping. Luke was awake now. I've seen him wake up before. He blinks and stares around as if he's not sure where he is. I came and sat down next to him.

"Is the money safe?" he asked.

"It is,"

We listened to George snoring.

"I wonder why Kate didn't shoot him right away." Luke said suddenly.

"Who? Stanley Yelnats?"

"Yeah. She's done it before. Shot people, I mean."

I shrugged. "Maybe she knew him."

"I don't think so."

I shrugged again. "Well, sometimes you just don't want to kill people."

Luke looked at me, and then suddenly snickered. In a ironic sort of way

"What?" I asked

"It was just the way you said it...'sometimes you don't want to kill people' like 'sometimes you don't want to eat baked beans' or 'sometimes you don't want to talk to anyone'...you know? Just that."

Luke is an odd kid sometimes. I couldn't help but smile.

"Well, you've never killed before. You don't have to worry." And then I wondered why I said that.

"I know. I probably don't deserve as much of the treasure as you, do I?"

I shook my head. "You help us carry the treasure around, you lie and cheat and steal..." I grinned. "I reckon you do."

Luke smiled. He stood up. "I'm really hungry, y'know. Can we have breakfast now?"

"Better wake George up first..."

There was a rustling in the bushes suddenly, from whereabouts the suitcases had been hidden. Luke gasped. I stepped in front of him and reached for my pistol. But it was Kate who stepped out, looking perfect in the rising sun, aside from the dark circles under her eyes. She saw us, and raised one eyebrow.

"Kate," I said with a sigh. "I wish you wouldn't do that."

She ignored me. "We need a place to bury the treasure. Too much more and it'll be too heavy to carry."

"Where were you planning on burying it, then?"

She paused. I had a feeling she wasn't going to tell us. "It's a long ride away. Almost a week."

"Well, we can deal with that."

She nodded. "And we've got to be careful. No recklessness, Joshua. No repeats of last time. Whatsoever."

With that, she turned and went back into the bushes. I sighed and sat back down.

"What happened last time?" Luke asked curiously.

He wouldn't have known. We only picked him up a few months ago. "It was my bright idea to rob a train," I said.

"It failed," came another voice. It was George. He was still lying on the ground, but his eyes were open. He was awake. "Failed utterly."

"We all got away," I said. "But we lost all the treasure. Months and months worth..."

"Brings a tear to my eye to think of it," George said, and I wasn't sure if he was joking. "Kate was furious for days. Especially with Joshua."

I shrugged. "It's all in the past now."

Luke smiled at all this. "So that's why she doesn't like you?"

"What d'ya mean? Everyone likes me." I started throwing some sticks into a pile, so I could light a fire. "I'm the loveable one."

"What am I?" George questioned, finally sitting up.

"The comic sidekick." I found some matches in my pocket and lit the wood. "Luke can be the sweet little hero. The one who gets the girl."

Luke grinned, shaking his head. "Where's Kate?"

"Dunno."

"Won't she want breakfast too?"

"She doesn't exactly eat much." George said. He started looking in a pack for food. "You may have noticed."

"Still..."

"Don't worry about her, just eat. We'll be riding for the whole day, remember?" George began making himself some toast. I watched the bushes for Kate. She didn't reappear.

Days passed.

We'd been riding non-stop, following Kate. We didn't know where we were going. She kept promising to tell us, but she never did. We'd stopped asking altogether by the third day.

We'd stopped at a small town called Wisdom Springs. It was so out of the way that no-one would recognize who we were, or so Kate said anyway.

We stayed in the inn. It was tiny, grotty, and revolting. Kate took the biggest room, while the rest of us squeezed into the smallest. It hardly seemed fair, but there's life for you. Luke got the bed. Me and George slept on the floor.

"I feel sick," Luke said thoughtfully, looking at the ceiling.

"Well, vomit out of the window or something," George muttered. He turned over and went to sleep. I stayed awake for only a little while longer. I don't know if Luke slept at all. He probably didn't.

He wasn't really that much of a thief or cheat or liar. Not at all. He ran away from home, we adopted him. That's about it. We figured that otherwise he might have died.

The next day it happened.

Kate said we were getting closer to where we were going. I hoped so. Near the middle of that day...the fourth day...George rode up to me.

"Green Lake," he said.

"What?"

"I bet that's where we're going."

That made a tremendous amount of sense. Once, Kate got drunk. She'd never done it before and she never did it again. But we heard her mutterings. Something about a lake. Green Lake, and the fact that she was never going back there. Something about God, too, and all sorts of other stuff.

She screamed at us after that, and made us promise to forget.

We didn't.

"Green Lake," I said thoughtfully. "But she said..." I cast my mind back. "She said something about it being home to no-one but murderers."

She'd screamed it...

"Well, she is a murderer," George said offhandedly.

I thought about this. I mean really thought. "Yeah. She is."

We rode until afternoon came, and then we stopped for lunch. We were running low on food now. I gave Luke some of my beans on toast. He looked hungrier than I was. Then again, he's always hungry.

"Thanks, Joshua," he said. We were sitting in a circle. He was inbetween me and Kate. Kate wasn't eating, again.

"You boys eat quickly," she said. "We'll need to be on our way."

Then we heard something. The sound of a horse. It was coming towards us.

Kate rose to her feet first. She spoke cooly, no panic in her voice. "Make sure the treasure's hidden."

It was. But it was too late to do anything about us, because then, from the bushes, a horse and rider emerged. Kate drew her pistol, but she didn't shoot. A young man, not much older than Luke, jumped down in front of her.

"Don't shoot," he said quickly. "I'm not going to kill you."

Kate kept her pistol pointed at him anyway. "Who are you?"

He ignored her question. "Kissin' Kate Barlow?"

She nodded. "For the second time...who are you?"

"I'm someone you don't know." he said. And then he added "I'm here to demand compensation for my father's death."

Kate frowned. She stared at him. Then slowly comprehension flooded over her face.

"You're his son? You were just a kid..."

He glared at her. "I grew up."

"Who is he?" Luke whispered to me. The boy heard.

"I'm the son of Green Lake's sheriff. My father was murdered...by her."

"For good reason," George said, but he was ignored. Kate and the boy were still staring at each other.

"Come to kill me, then?" Kate asked.

"I wish I could," the boy said coldly, "but my father wouldn't want that."

Kate swallowed.

"Give me your treasure...all of it...and I'll be gone."

"Put your gun down, then," Kate said. He did. She sighed. She turned to look at us. She looked almost sorry.

"Boys, fetch the treasure."

We stared for a moment. I raised my pistol, but Kate shook her head. We tramped off into the bushes.

"This isn't fair," George muttered. "Second time...second bloody time...look, let's not give him all of it, okay? He won't know."

I tried to work out what Kate would say to that. I thought she'd agree with him. But I didn't know.

"I'm not sure about that..."

"Come on," George lifted three of the suitcases. "Leave the Yelnats one, give him the rest. That way, we're still okay. Come on, Joshua..."

I sighed. Luke lifted a suitcase. "Alright."

Suitcases in hand, we returned to where Kate and the boy were still standing. I couldn't tell if they'd spoken to each other or not. Kate's eyes were closed.

"Give them to him," she said. We did. He opened each one, checking we hadn't cheated him. Each suitcase had enough in it to make a man rich- he seemed satisfied. He nodded.

"Thanks, Miss Katherine."

He climbed back onto the horse, strapping the suitcases to the sides. He nodded at Kate. Kate didn't nod back. She looked oddly heartbroken.

"Goodbye..."

The boy pulled his pistol from his pocket again. He fired, a shot, there was a scream, and then he was gone.

Just like that.

I didn't understand for a moment what had happened, but then it dawned on me. Luke had been standing next to me...now he wasn't. Kate had been silent...now she wasn't.

"You bastard!" she was screaming. "Come back here! You bastard! You don't deserve to live! Come back here! You'll burn in hell with the rest of them, you will, you will, you will!"

I dropped to my knees next to Luke. He wasn't breathing. Blood was soaking through his shirt.

He was dead.

"You'll die! I'll kill you. Come back here, come back here!" Kate fired a few shots into the bushes at random. Then she flung her pistol to the floor.

"Come back..."

But he didn't.

We buried him. We had one old shovel, so we used that. As soon as we put the last piece of earth back, the handle snapped. George looked at it and stuck it in the ground, and then tied the other piece around it so it looked like a cross. For a marker, he explained.

Kate hadn't helped. She was standing a little way away from us, looking in the other direction. Even when night fell, and us remaining two were preparing to leave, she was still standing there.

Me and George exchanged a look. I don't know why, but suddenly in that moment I missed Luke terribly. And he'd only been gone a few hours. I didn't understand it. And I hated to think what I'd be feeling after a few more days went by.

I went to Kate.

"Shall we carry on?" I asked quietly. "We're going to Green Lake still, right..." Then I trailed off, kicking myself, because she hadn't told us that was where we were going. But she didn't seem very angry.

"I've destroyed so much." she finally said.

"Kate..."

"Sam was innocent," she said, looking up at me. "Luke was innocent. Even that old Yelnats man and all the other people I killed were innocent."

"Listen..."

"I'M AS BAD!" She glared widly around and I thought for one brief second that she was going to hit me. "I DID WHAT THEY DID!"

George watched us, surprised and amazed and worried.

"I didn't do it for the same reasons," Kate said, a bit of sanity returning to her voice. "But I did. I've killed. I've betrayed Sam, I've betrayed everyone..."

She looked at George, who looked back at her. I didn't know what to do.

"Sam," Kate said, her tears dripping to the floor "forgive me...please..."

But there was silence. Kate rose. She walked towards her horse, and climbed on. George vanished for a second into the bushes, and when he came back he was holding Stanley Yelnats' treasure chest.

"I reckon this should be yours."

I thought she would refuse it, she looked like she was going to, but then she took it from him anyway, and nodded. George nodded back.

"Goodbye, girlie," he said under his breath. I shot a look at him, Katherine stared straight ahead.

"I'm going back to Green Lake. Don't follow me. Please."

George nodded. I nodded too. She opened the suitcase, took out a large percentage of the money, and handed it to us.

"Don't follow me." she said again.

"Why are you going..." I began

"Because Green Lake is for murderers," she said. "And that's where I belong."

She rode away.

Me and George were left there. He walked over to where our packs where, and, with a deep sigh, started looking for something to eat.

"George, what's going on?" I asked. "Why'd she tell us not to follow? Who's Sam? And why'd you let her take the treasure?"
At his sharp look I added. "Not that I mind. I don't. Besides, we could hunt down the guy who shot Luke and take the rest of the money back...and beat his brains out into the bargain," I said, feeling anger like I'd never felt before. "But I want to know why."

"Green Lake? Who knows. She wants to punish herself, I imagine." George said, not looking at me. "Sam...he was...he was a man she was in love with." When I nodded he continued. "And the moneybox? Dunno. But she doesn't want the money for herself. Maybe she wants to bury it there as a memorial to the people she'd killed..."

"That makes sense..."

"It does," He started chewing on the piece of bread he'd found in his bag. "So. Now what?"

I looked at him, and then I looked at the broken shovel-cross sticking up from the ground.

"I want to go home." I finally said,

"Agreed."

Who knew if we even had homes? I had no idea where George came from. My own home was a grotty little town which was, now I thought about it, probably not that far from Green Lake. But not so near that I'd have some chance of seeing Kate again.

Besides, she might die.

She probably would.

We might, as well.

"I'm not killing any more people," I said, "Except the one who shot Luke. And 'person' can't be applied to him."

George finished chewing his bread.

"Well, it can't be applied to us either."

And he was right. He was too right. I hated him and Kate both for a split second. I sat down next to him.

"Tomorrow I'm leaving."

"Same here. Tomorrow. Parting ways."

"Yeah," I said, and because I hadn't said goodbye to either Luke or Kate, I added. "Goodbye, then."

"Goodbye."

I went to sleep. When I woke up in the morning, he was gone.

I never knew what became of him, or what became of Kate. Maybe they lived, maybe they died. Maybe Kate buried the treasure, maybe she didn't. Maybe someone dug it up, maybe they didn't.

I'll never know. But for Luke...who didn't deserve to die at all...if for nothing else...I hope someone finds out.

THE END