"He that is born to be hanged shall never be drowned."-unknown
He's nineteen the day I first set eyes on him, all dark eyes and fire in his veins. He's older than I was when my name was whispered with fear but there's still an innocence beneath the hard edge in the gaze that watches me, a whisper of doubt in the hands hovering over his guns.
I could kill him so easily, or he could kill me. It's like the flip of a coin, heads you win, tails you lose. He puts his bullet into the lens of a camera and I put mine into his shoulder. He lives, by fate, or chance, or that same flip of a coin that decrees I do, also. And like that all the hatred drains away, taking with it that metallic edge in his eyes and leaving him raw and exposed, as easily read as a familiar book.
I think that's what I see in him in the beginning - the goodness, the heart of him. I don't know him but everything in me wants to protect him, to hold the world away from him and not let it sink it's claws into his back, ruin that goodness and twist it like everyone else I've ever known. Looking back, I realize it was because he was the first decent person I'd ever met, pure decent through and through, sunshine without a single shadow.
I call him Cully. It's the first word I learn of his tongue-twisting carny lingo, and the only one that matters. Cully. Pal. Friend. In many ways he's like the kid brother I never had, and sometimes he reminds me of myself, who I might have been if I'd never killed a man on the Mexican border when I wasn't even his age yet, who I'd be today if I'd had half a chance at all. I never did, of course, and neither will he.
He's nineteen and he'll be dead before he's thirty. But I don't know that then.
The first funeral I go to is my father's. Somewhere between the home we used to have and the one he dreamed about he puts a rifle to his head and pulls the trigger. I never know why and it never seems to matter. All I remember is the overwhelming sense of panic that fills me as the wagons line up and run over his grave, hiding all trace of his body from Indians and wild animals.
He's dead and gone like he never existed and I love him and hate him all at once. But mostly I keep looking at that patch of ground, searching for something to convince myself that I had a father the day before, that he was living and breathing. But there's nothing.
There's an old woman standing there, a shawl wrapped around her, a Bible clutched in her hand. She looks at me, straight through me, and back down at the grave.
"Sins of the fathers." She says quietly. "Sins of the fathers."
It will be a while before I understand what she means.
I'm the one who does it. There's no one else to blame, no one to hate. It's my words that make him my deputy, my hand that gives him the silver star to pin on his chest.
He's young and green, and faster with a gun that any man I've ever known, and I tell myself that I'm doing the right thing, that without me the world might turn him bad, turn him into someone like myself, with a dozen notches carved into my soul and blood seeped into the pores of my skin. I tell myself I'm keeping him alive.
He'll die in less than ten years and all because I pin an ounce of tin above his heart and think I'm saving his life.
I'm little more than a kid when I kill my first man, and I've never killed anything when I put my bullet through him and his blood splashes onto me. I wipe my hand frantically, eyes wide as his body jerks and finally goes horribly still. I want to scream but my throat is paralyzed and I'm frozen from head to toe. His eyes are wide open and I realize he's dead, dead because a chunk of lead pierced his lung, my lead, and my kill. It's the first.
The next man will kill me, I think at the time. I'll burn for what I've done.
I'm wrong, at least about the first part. There's another man and I kill him, followed by another and another until I've forgotten how many. None of them, no matter what I think or hope, ever come close to killing me. But I'm right about one thing.
I do burn.
It takes me a while but I learn all his expressions. There's odd ones and carny phrases, forgotten words and tumbling sentences that run alongside that nameless calliope tune he always whistles when he's making coffee. He never gets the carnival out of his blood, even as the months pass and the farthest he goes from Velardi is a town over to pick up a prisoner.
I forget most of the words, tuck them away in the dark like the money I save in a locked box, but one remains, a simple, strange little expression of his when he wanted to leave a room, or when he intruded where he wasn't expected.
"I think I'll go dust off the moon."
I never asked him where he learned it. Probably on some midway or beneath a colored tent, but it lingered with him. Moondust is deep, they say, deep enough to sink in and never rise again. You could drown in it and no one would ever know.
But he never looked at it that way.
I'm sitting there at my desk with my gun in my hand and a half-finished jug in the other when I hear his step behind me, as distinctive as the sound of his voice. I spin the chamber with my thumb, toying with it, fingers brushing the shotgun shell beneath the other bullets. It's always there, a reminder of my father and the moment he gave up, a silent temptation when the nightmares grow worse and I see the blood spill across the floor. He comes up behind me, but he doesn't reach for the gun.
"You've got a lot of friends, Johnny." He says quietly, and there's a unspoken warning behind his voice, that quiet don't even think about it as he shakes me out of it once again, pastes the broken pieces together for one more day.
Only one friend, I want to say. But I never do.
Once, between killings and running from the law, when I was still young, I went back home to my sisters. I don't know what I was looking for - peace, love, forgiveness - but I found nothing. They wouldn't even let me in, not with the blood on my soul.
Sins of the fathers, like the old woman said. What's bred in the bone comes out in the flesh, and a thousand other reasons. Love him or hate him only one man gives you half your life, the fault not in your stars but in yourself.
I'm my father's son, after all.
I'm best man at Cully's wedding and she's a pretty girl, quiet and all "sweet taffy" as he says. They settle into a little farm on the edge of town and seven months later there's a baby on the way. He's walking on air when he learns. The child won't be born for six months and he's already picking out a pony for it, so proud and happy he can't think of anything else, talking of chaps and spurs and a strong son, ribbons and curls and a girl who looks like her mother. He'll never knows either way.
It won't be born for six months and his wife will be a widow in three, and his child an orphan before it's ever born.
Once, on the way west, I saw an Indian baby that had died, hung in it's pack from the trees in that tribe's form of burial. It was a small, frail thing, weathered by the sun and rain, resting in midair and gently rocked by the wind. I told my father I wanted to be buried like that and he only looked at me for a long moment.
"You're young, Johnny." He said, finally, and his voice was heavy, like a cloud thick with rain. "You shouldn't be thinkin' of dyin'. And your ma wouldn't like to hear you soundin' like a heathen."
I didn't speak of it again. But I watched the baby framed against the sky until it faded into a speck in the distance and was swallowed up by the dust behind our wagon.
It's a bank robbery in the icy winter that takes us out that day, tracking three men and an insignificant amount of money that we never get back. I stop by and get Cully, and he comes, of course, just like always, with his gun and that star pinned on his shirt.
His wife's cheeks are pink with the cold, a hand resting lightly over the swell where the baby is slowly forming, as she comes out to watch us leave. He kisses her, fingers twining over her's, promising to be home quickly.
"I'll bring him back in one piece." I say with a smile.
It's the last lie I ever tell.
Once on the way west a child falls from the wagon and gets pulled under by her dress, crushed beneath the wheels before the wagon can be stopped. I don't see it happen but I hear the screams, the keening from the mother, and I turn and watch as they lift the little broken body out from the mud.
"She's dead." I say, and it's emotionless, half shock and half knowing. I've never seen death but I know what it looks like now, all twisted and unnatural, and nothing like the softly portrayed painting of the Crucifixion tucked in my parent's Bible. Death is grisly and horrific and there's nothing gentle or beautiful about it.
Ma whispers a prayer and my sisters copy her but I don't. Prayers won't bring the child back.
I don't realize he's hit until he doesn't answer. He's lying there, slumped against the rocks, blood running like a river out of his stomach, low on the left. His hand looks insubstantial and white against the gaping wound, head twisted sideways and eyes closed. I gather him up, push his hand away, and I see the wound clearly.
I know then that he's dying. It's a twisted form of payback, I think faintly, for the first man I ever killed, the one I left gutshot in that Texas range war all those years ago. Everything comes back in the end. Nothing is ever left unpunished.
Once I killed a sixteen year old boy in a Yuma saloon, a kid who'd held a gun for the first time that day and couldn't shoot straight, let alone with any speed, who drew first but I had the advantage. He didn't die quick, and for an while before the doctor came I knelt beside him and tried to put him back together, to hold the lifeblood in and give him a chance to see seventeen.
It was no use, in the end. He lingered a couple hours and died. He was a good boy, his father said through tears of unmeasurable sorrow and hatred as he looked at me. The ones who die young always are. Only the evil ones live forever.
Doc does everything he can. He takes the bullet out and stitches him up, tries to keep the fever down and infection out, but there's no use. Cully's wife stays on her feet, somehow, but she's white as a sheet and there's broken glass in her eyes when she looks up at me, a quiet mix of heartbreak and the knowledge that I hadn't told her the truth, that I'd broken my promise. When Doc finally comes out his face is grim and he shakes his head at us. I don't feel her strike me, fists pounding my chest as she screams and Doc pulls her away and guides her into the next rooms to lie down, urging her to think of the baby, to hang onto the life she can save. I walk past them and into the room, slip into the chair beside him and watch the ragged rise and fall of Cully's chest, faint and fading. The chair creaks and his eyes flutter open, shifting marginally toward me.
He smiles, so faintly it's little more than a twitch on his lips as he looks at me with the same eyes that stared across the table the day I met him. I reach for his hand and it's cold in mine, strangely fragile, nothing like the firm grip I remember.
"Cully..." I start to speak. I don't know what I'm planning to say, probably meaningless words, the usual "you'll be fine" that burns into the throat.
And he dies. It's so sudden that I don't even realize it at first, like the space between breaths.
I never finish my sentence. Not that it would have mattered anyway.
After I killed that sixteen year old boy I vowed I'd never kill again. It was foolish in the end, because the first - only - honest job I could get was as a sheriff, a job that's synonymous with someone else's death or your own. And I killed a lot of people.
The third to last was Cully.
I track the two men halfway into Mexico, far beyond the law's reach, beyond anything legal. I'm not a sheriff here, only a gunfighter, a vigilante. I find them in a cantina in a pueblo town and I grab the nearest man and slam him against the bar before he can reach for his gun.
I beat him half senseless as I search for a name, an answer, which one killed Cully. My voice is inhuman, a grating rasp. He tells me his name but I never hear it and points at the man to his left. I throw him aside and his head cracks the corner of the bar as he goes down, as I pull my gun and drive an ounce of lead into the other's man's heart.
His eyes widen as he staggers backwards, blood spurting from the hole in the center of his chest. I put five more bullets and a shotgun shell through him. He's dead before he hits the ground and I can't make his face out, my world a faded orange glow with the sound of my heartbeat and harsh breathing unbearably loud to my ears, the screams and shouts a faint whisper in the background. I'm still standing over him, pulling the trigger again and again when someone takes the gun away from me, and I realize there isn't a bullet left for myself.
It's murder, both of them, and I bring their bodies in without a defense, wait for an inquest, a trial that never comes. But they don't hang me. I haven't suffered enough, I suppose. You have to go through purgatory first, before you can reach hell.
Life goes on, even if you don't want it to. The sun comes up every morning, the seasons pass, children are born, and men die. Velardi grows up, like any other town, and gradually I learn that the old ways are fading. People put away their guns and the range wars disappear into the past, taking with them the miners and outlaws, the bullets and the deputies. Only the hilltop stays the same, the old tree carved with Cully's name and the sunrises that paint the sky that rich shade of gold he loved.
Cully's widow went east to her family, with the money I gave her, a fragile shadow of the girl with the dancing eyes at their wedding, arms wrapped around herself as if desperate to hold on to the last fragment of Cully she has, the child tucked inside her. I put her on the train in the care of an older couple, her hand icy cold in mine as I help her on. She didn't look at me and I didn't speak.
I never see her again. She never remarries, I learn. The child is a boy, and despite the fear I remember in her eyes that day at the station, he's born strong and healthy. She names him after his father, of course, but she never calls him Cully. Like me, she never speaks that nickname again.
Once she sends me a photograph of the boy. He's ten now and the instant I hold the image up to the light I see he's a mirror of his father - the same eyes, set of mouth, nose. It's like looking at Cully's ghost, seeing him all over again, after all these years.
I don't know how I find myself in the valley but I do, sitting against a tree and drinking myself into a stupor. It's hard liquor and pure rotgut and it goes down hard, like metal at the back of my throat. And then I hear it, so quiet it's like the sound of the wind stirring through the trees.
"It's all right, Johnny."
I'm drunk, I know, hallucinating. But I lift my head anyway because only one person says my name that way, wraps around the word and lifts the edges. One person, dead all these years. My eyes blur as I toss back another swallow, the mouthful burning my throat.
He's sitting there, only a foot or two in front of me, back against the roots of the hanging tree, dressed in that old six button black shirt with the tin star pinned over his heart. It's whole this time, not blood-stained and torn where I ripped it apart trying to staunch the wound, missing even the giant hole the shotgun shell blew through it. The wind ruffles his hair and he looks so young, so impossibly young that I wonder if I was ever his age and have only forgotten, and alive like I never held him in my arms and felt the life drain out like water from the bottom of a dry well. He's watching me, face slightly tilted, sunlight glinting off his eyes.
It's all there, all the little things I've tried to forget, buried under the weight of days and months, numbed by alcohol and driven away by the bullets I shot through the man who killed him. That nameless calliope tune he whistled while making coffee. The taste of Laura's kiss as she leaned against me, the buggy swaying as the horse slowly walked down the street. The lilt of Case's accent and the tampered down hunger in his eyes when he saw a whisky bottle. Case lying twisted and white on the store's floor. Laura walking past me, sobbing, not looking at me as they help her out. The hollow sound of the wind through the hills as I look down at my hands and see them slick with his blood, visceral crimson dripping into the ground, as I rip open his shirt and see the wound and I know. And his name, always his name, a silent litany as I stab the shovel into the frozen ground and dig his grave.
"Say it, Johnny." He says softly, patiently.
"Cully." The name tastes strange in my mouth, like the first taste of water after a dry run. It's the first time I've spoken it, even thought it since the day he died, as if acknowledging him will bring back all the grief and I won't be able to keep from rupturing, spilling over all the bottled anger, guilt, and blinding agony that's been a part of me like a shard of broken glass all these years.
He smiles, and I'd forgotten the sight of it, like sunshine coming from behind a cloud, brightening everything around him. That was the way about him. He made people better just by being around them.
I reach out my hand, palm upright, fingers outstretched, and he fades away like a whisper on the wind, my hand brushing only air. He isn't there, I know, he's been dead for so long now. It's only a memory, a whisper of a ghost and nothing more, and I won't even be that in the end, not in this world with the blood on my hands and the fire in my mind and the faces of the dead man walking past me. I tilt my face up and I see it, the moon resting in the sky, a full face looking down on me. It's dusty, a halo around it, because Cully hasn't been there to dust it off, of course, not in all these years.
My other hand curls around my gun and it's clenched in my fist before I'm even aware of it. I put it against my head and the barrel is cold as ice, as lifeless as Cully's hand in mine. It's the sins of the fathers, I remember, the sins of the fathers. I don't cry, or scream, or even think a last wish, a single hope. I only pull the trigger.
The last thing I see is the moon, cold, still...and falling to dust.
Before I ever started watching and loving the tv series, I was obsessed with the real John Ringo. Out of all the outlaws of the Old West his story seems the most tragic and it's easy to see how all the things in his life - his father's suicide, his family's rejection of him, and the loss of his few friends in a shootout - led up to his own death. John Ringo did commit suicide in Arizona on July 13, 1882 at the age of 32, and he was buried where he was found. His horse had strayed away and his boots were still tied onto the saddle. When I first started watching the series I became fascinated by the character of Cully, who, unlike Johnny, was purely fictional, yet for the second half of the series is Johnny's only real friend. I couldn't help seeing the giant holes in the real John Ringo's life and comparing them to his fictional counterpart, and strangely enough, the more I looked the more I could see how easily Cully fit in those holes. This led to my wondering if John Ringo might have been a different person entirely if Cully had actually existed, perhaps even a mirror of his tv version. Shortly after that a new question popped into my head - whether the reverse was true, too, and whether the loss of Cully would push the tv version onto the same path as his real life counterpart? This story was the result of that.