A Foul Evil Deed
Inspired in part by the old cowboy tune "El Paso" by Marty Robbins
Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Well, Mexican as advertized on the marquee outside of Rosa's, a tumbledown dive with year-old shit-caked sawdust for a floor, but Feleena wasn't Mexican; probably wasn't from anywhere near this frontier backwater; probably wasn't from this goddamn planet.
I arrived in El Paso ahead of my, well… let's call them associates for now. I always arrived first no matter the job, no matter the town. It was a force of habit. They'd nag on me for a week or two, my bags packed and my stirrups sharpened before they'd even gone down to the cellar to find their gunny sacks. Ken slow down. Ken where's the fire? I'd chuckle and ignore them; they couldn't understand. I had to get there first. I had to see the land and get to know the people for their sakes. They'd ride into to mouth of hell itself with neither a word nor worry if I'd let them.
This time I was early even by my standards. I rode into El Paso six weeks before the rest of my friends. I had plenty of gold (not that anyone would know to look at me, purposely trail-worn as my clothes were) and I rented a modest room at one of the cheaper hotels to keep my profile low. I could've ended up at any of the dozen saloons in town, but that first night something drew me toward Rosa's. I remember the moon was rising directly behind the cantina and even as run-down as it looked from the outside, the moonlight made it sparkle and it held one supreme difference over the rest of the watering holes along Mesa Avenue. Every dive in El Paso had a honky tonk piano player, faro tables and a half-dozen whores all named Trixie, but only Rosa's had a marquee out front advertizing real Mexican dancing girls. I smiled, remembering fondly that "real" was spelled "reel."
Inside the place was appalling even for a dive saloon on the Texas frontier. Tree stumps for tables, a bar made of sawhorses, and the surliest, ugliest, baldest, piss-reeking toothless old crone ever running the place by herself. Rosa, as I was soon acquainted with her, served up something she called beer. Saying it tasted like a spittoon would be a disservice to fine spittoons everywhere. Still, I suffered through glass after glass waiting and wondering why I was drawn to this sorry establishment with its chaw-spit beer and reel Mexican girls. When I just couldn't stomach any more "beer" I took a whiskey bottle and a glass and sat down at a rickety table in the middle of the room. I was about halfway in when I finally covered up the taste of sour beer with sour mash.
That was when Feleena appeared. There wasn't so much as a stage in the place as there was a curtain in one corner. She walked out from behind it in a frilly dress of blood red and hair as black as night. Maybe if I had been blind drunk and passed out on the sawhorse bar she might've passed for Mexican, but it was obvious to me, a man trained to notice these things even after half a bottle of whiskey, that there probably wasn't any Mexican blood in her heritage back at least three, maybe four generations.
But then the music started. A white-haired, drunken guitarista wearing a faded charro outfit with crescent moons stitched up the side of each pant leg slouched in the corner with a beaten git-box with a split neck and just three strings left on it and played a flamenco that would have made Cortez give up his gold. Then she danced. Oh, did she dance. A Mexican dance. At that point it didn't matter if it was in her blood or not; she made me a believer.
Even if I wasn't the only sorry soul in the bar she probably would have focused on me. I felt it from her the instant her eyes hit mine. She was hunting me like a wildcat predator on the open range; I would be her prey whether I liked it or not. I couldn't pull my eyes away from hers once she'd found my gaze, it was like she'd cast a spell on me. Those eyes… In the dull lamplight they looked brown, maybe black. I couldn't tell. For one thing she spun around too damn much for me to get a clear look at her face. Her dress was like a red cyclone, spinning and whirling around me in a bloody haze. Her bare feet moved in time, skillfully avoiding such hazards as rusty floorboard nails, shards of broken glass from many a bygone brawl, and dried patches of rotgut vomit. Her fingers fluttered, snapping a pair of castanets rhythmically over the frantic flamenco tune. It sounded like Rosa's was filling to the rafters with rattlesnakes.
There was a jarring shift in the melody and I suddenly found my pistol-belted lap straddled by the dancing girl. I finally got a good look at her face and was startled to find her eyes were actually blue; sky blue in fact. Her face was clean and clear in spite of the roughness of her trade. (I had to assume that she was only a dancer to begin with and that she offered other closed-door services like the rest of the town's working girls). She had a sweet face if you could forgive the persistent look of wickedness constantly tugging at the lower corners of her lips. She couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen years old, but the heavy makeup could account for a few years. She was probably closer to fourteen.
Her body rose up and down in a waving motion as she grinded and gyrated on my lap. Her eyes wouldn't let go. A scent filled my nose, my head, my whole body; good lord, she smelled like the desert itself: juniper and sage, only sweeter somehow. I was going lightheaded. Desperately, I grabbed the glass of whiskey off the table to steady myself and brought it to my lips. Before I could drink Feleena snatched the glass from my hand, put it to her lips with a devilish grin and downed the contents in a single gulp. Whatever desire I had for her upon my first glance was now replaced by an all-consuming need.
A small trickle of brown escaped her lips and dribbled down the tiny cleft of her chin, then down her throat. Just before it disappeared between her heaving breasts my tongue cleaved to my jaws as I held back a desperate urge to catch the errant drop of whiskey and taste its fire mingled with the soft, sweaty sweetness of her skin. Having apparently elicited the exact reaction she was looking for, she placed both hands castanets and all on my chest and forced herself away. She twirled tightly across the floor back towards the guitarista, threw her skirts to one side and struck a final, revealing pose as the song ended in a flourish. Anywhere else in the country, a dance hall or theater show, the roar of an appreciative and aroused crowd would have been deafening and lasted for minutes. Here there was only a grunt of approval from Rosa and the sound of the wind whistling through my open mouth.
She didn't look my way again, just nodded her thanks to the guitarista who nodded back from behind a bottle of tequila and she ducked through the shaggy curtain again into the back room of the cantina. My gut reaction was to throw myself out of the chair and sprint after her lest I lose her forever, but surely she'd come out again. Surely she'd dance again…
"Three dollars." A gruff voice behind me demanded, "Gold. No paper."
Sighing in defeat I turned around and faced the surly proprietor of Rosa's cantina and slapped a small laced satchel containing ten gold eagles in her fat, sweaty hand.
"You just keep the whiskey flowing; there's more where that came from." I told her and turned back towards the curtain in the corner, "I'm gonna be here a while."
Two days passed before I saw Feleena again. No, I didn't spend them piss drunk at Rosa's, but I did spend them up and down the streets of El Paso asking passers-by what, if anything, they knew about the "Mexican" dancing girl. Not surprisingly, few knew anything. Most decent folk stayed away from Rosa's on account of the smell and rampant violence which would erupt every other night.
As usual most people I questioned were visibly terrified of me; Lord knows why… it couldn't have been eternally sunny disposition. Must have been the weathered, leathery look of my face, the scars, the long streaks of silver hair, the deathly gray eyes of a professional killer, and the fourteen inches of shining steel with which I plied my trade strapped to my hip.
When I finally did see Feleena again I walked right past her. Only that maddening sweet-desert scent that trailed behind her gave her away. When she passed by on the street she was not the black-haired, red-dressed, barefoot dancing beauty I had seen before; she was wearing boots, plain tan trousers and a white blouse. Her hair was bright blonde, like spun gold, and it hung in a huge wave down her back with a bright red bow atop her head which was quite obviously there for form and not function. I couldn't recognize her; either the whiskey was stronger than I thought that night, or her Mexican disguise was just that good.
She greeted, bright-eyed and smiling, everyone she saw along the street and the boardwalks in front of the shops and saloons including some men I'd asked about her who professed to know nothing, not even her name. When she waved and called hello to an older, squat man wearing long, white, handlebar whiskers, an old black suit and a bowler hat I sprinted. She ducked into a general store and I stepped directly in front of the shorter gentleman.
"Ah!" he caught himself from outright screaming in terror when he turned around to find me towering over him, "H- hello!" He tried to make a move to walk around me, but I sidestepped in front of him.
"You look like a man who knows what I want to know." I stated coolly.
"I beg pardon?" he asked back seeming dumbfounded.
"What's your name?" I asked and pulled a hand-rolled cigarette from my vest pocket. I chomped down on it and lit it in one stroke of a match.
"G- Greeley." He stammered, "Jacob Greeley. Haberdsasher."
Smirking, I took off my hat, dusty and worn from the trail, and tossed it on the ground near my feet. I snatched the shorter man's bowler hat from atop his head with one hand and placed it neatly on top of my silver hair.
"Now that is a mighty fine fit." I nodded. He nodded back, muted terror.
"Not quite my style, though." I traded his hat back to him and reclaimed my own, "Mr. Greeley, what say I buy you a drink and you get to telling me all the things I want to know about the girl who just said hello to you."
"I don't drink, no sir." Greeley suddenly became very guarded and emboldened, "And I am not in the habit of talking behind people's backs, especially not to foul-smelling drifters like yourself. Good day, sir."
Jacob Greely attempted to walk past me again without another thought or glance. However, I was not (and never was) in the mood to bandy words. When I cut him off once again I threw my duster open and the sun glinted of the revolver on my hip. Greely spied it at once and his eyes went saucers.
He shrank into his coat, stumbled backwards and fell into a barrel full of oak axe handles and blubbered, "No! Please! Don't kill me! Oh Lord, Oh God, no!"
"Stand up." I sighed under my breath and clapped the man on the shoulder as companionably as possible. Passers-by had glanced at the ruckus, but thankfully hadn't stopped to stare.
"Oh Jesus. Oh savior Jesus…" he continued rambling.
"Shut up." I ordered and the man's mouth snapped immediately shut, "I don't kill people who might be useful to me." I slapped his shoulder again and nodded at the door of the general store, "That girl."
"Y-yes, sir." Greeley stuttered.
"Isn't that the dancing girl?" I asked, "From Rosa's."
I certainly wasn't going to kill this man. Most of my behavior was an act designed to elicit this sort of reaction, but Greeley didn't know that which made the fact that he laughed in my face all the more impressive.
"Sir." He spoke steadily and assuredly, "Forgive my boldness, but I must tell you that you are mistaken."
My nose wasn't mistaken. I'd tracked men across two hundred miles of sun-parched hardpan with nothing but a scent to go on. That sweet desert perfume belonged to one woman alone.
"Who was she, then?" I asked.
"That's Miss Clayton." Greeley practically beamed back, "Wilhelmina Clayton, but she likes Mina for short, that she does."
"She's a friend of yours?" I prodded.
"Oh she's a friend of everyone in town!" the squat man exclaimed.
"That so?" My expression soured immediately, "She a working girl?"
"Oh, no!" Greeley seemed absolutely offended at the thought, "No, no, no! No, sir. She's as true a Christian woman as they come! Not a hair on her golden head touched by sin, praise God!"
"Is she a Sister?" I wondered aloud, not necessarily to my informant.
"Not that I'm aware, but she has the heart of a saint, yessir." I was moderately relieved by his words, "She tends the sick with Doctor Maguire, she leads the congregation in song every Sunday, voice like an angel, sir, and she…"
He stopped mid-sentence, "She what?"
"Well, sir, I don't rightly know what her true vocation is." Greeley scratched the whitening scalp under his bowler, "She seems to do just about anything; everything. Whatever someone needs, she does."
"She sounds like quite a girl." I mentioned and thought of that errant drop of whiskey snaking its way down her bosom, "Quite a girl, indeed."
"Oh, yessir." Greeley spoke almost proudly, "A veritable Madonna compared to that whirling, twirling, whorish Jezebel from the cantina, if you'll pardon me, sir."
I laughed in reply. I would've loved to see Jacob Greeley's reaction to the news that Rosa's sultry dancing girl and the saintly Mina Clayton were one in the same, but this man didn't deserve such a shock. He had answered my questions even if I did turn his trousers into a chamber pot.
"Good day, Mr. Greeley." I tipped my hat at the stout man and turned away.
"Uh…" he stuttered for a moment, "Good day!"
What Jacob Greeley and my nose had told me would take a while to set in. The radiant blonde girl with a smile and a hello for everyone, who tended the sick and sang like an angel was, in fact, the wicked enchantress who danced the flamenco all over the fragile hearts of men? I remembered the weight of her as she danced on my lap, the trickle of whiskey on her chin, and the gleam of devil's fire in her eyes. There was nothing for it: I had to see her again.
Mina Clayton. I thought to myself, I'll meet you another day.
With that, I crossed the street to where the boardwalks turned to dirt again and made my way down to Rosa's Cantina and the dancing girl.
It was a week until I spoke to her. A week of drinking Rosa's gut-wrenching beer, a week of thinking about the other things of I should have been doing in preparation for my friends' arrival, a week of Feleena's dancing. Each night was different; each night somehow more intense than the last. In the mornings I stood by the general store waiting for her to pass by. She didn't know my name, but I had become one of the many folks on her daily cross-town trek that Mina Clayton smiled and said hello to.
One day I said hello back.
"Oh!" she said with a little gasp, "Well look at you!"
I glanced down at my boots and arched an eyebrow, "I'm sorry?"
"You gave me a start, I didn't think you ever spoke!" she tittered.
"Why's that?" I asked.
"Because you stand there all day looking grim and grouchy and never say anything to anyone." She observed.
"I usually don't have anything to say." I told her honestly.
"But today you do?" she prodded.
"And that would be?" she touched a finger to an earlobe.
"Hello." I repeated.
"Well all right." She nodded and carried on her way, "See you tomorrow."
I raised a hand and waved after her as her hair swished around her like a golden dust devil.
See you tonight.
I let the game go on for another week until Friday night at Rosa's, the busiest night of the week, and the only night when Feleena mingled in the drunken crowd of grab-ass wastrels that collected in this cesspool instead of making a hasty exit behind her curtain.
"Hello." I said when I finally managed to corner her away from a table of filthy drovers who were throwing money at her hand over fist for one more dance.
Her eyes caught mine but betrayed no emotion. I reached into my vest and removed a cigarette which I offered her. She declined with a shake of her head. Shrugging, I lit it for myself.
"Nothing to say?" I asked with a slow smile.
"Not to you." She said with a wink, trying her best to sound sultry and mysterious.
"No need to be grim and grouchy." I echoed her words and her attention finally snapped fully towards me, "Just saying hello."
"Hello." She whispered shakily.
I smiled, waved my match out and turned.
"See you tomorrow."
"How did you know?" Mina asked me a week later.
We had seen each other every day since my last visit to Rosa's and often ate lunch together on a nearby ranch where she helped the elderly owner, a Mr. Boothe, tend to his herd while his son Quincy was laid up with a broken ankle.
"What did you say, Mina?"
"How did you know who I was?" she repeated.
"Just knew." I told her teasingly.
"You can't keep it from me forever, Mr. Palmer." Mina promised.
"Maybe if you start calling me Ken, I'll tell you." I replied.
"Well maybe if you start calling me Miss Clayton, I'll start calling you Ken." She huffed, "Honestly, it's terribly improper to call a woman by her first name after just a few days."
"It's been more than a few days." I reminded her, "I watched you dance almost every night for the last two weeks."
Her face flushed red with pleasant embarrassment and a little anger at being caught in her own yarn, "That doesn't count."
"Very well, I'll give you this one, Miss Clayton." I acquiesced and jumped down from the rail fence I'd been sitting on next to her, "Do you really want to know?"
"It's all in the nose." I told her and tapped the side of mine.
She blinked, once, and her mouth hung open. For a moment I thought she would either slap me, kiss me, or burst into tears.
"Are you saying…" she had to rein in her shock, "You sniffed me out?"
"Well, it's not quite so romantic when you say it like that." I jostled her, "But I did think it was a bit strange that two beautiful women in this town both happened to smell of juniper, sagebrush, and sunshine."
"Oh." She said with a little smile which I returned in kind, "So tell me, Missster Palmer," she said it with adorable added stress just to rile me, "What exactly does sunshine smell like?"
A few nights later I sat with Mina… pardon me… Feleena, Rosa's dancing girl at a small table lit by a pitiful candle behind the curtain from where she emerged each night. She had just finished gathering her massive waterfall of golden hair into a tight bun beneath her jet-black wig.
"What makes you do this?" I asked. I had to ask. The question had been itching at me since the moment I put the pieces of this particular puzzle together. Now seemed as good a time as any.
"Not tonight." She snapped.
"Because tonight I want to have fun." She smiled a vicious, almost gluttonous smile, "And the answer isn't."
During dinner at the Prospector Hotel one night I managed to let a well-worn, creased, nearly unrecognizable photograph fall from my wallet and Mina wasted no time snatching it from under my nose.
"What's this?" she buzzed with excitement seeing the four faces staring back at her.
"Uhh, that… um…" I stammered immediately giving it away.
"Are these your friends?!" she seemed utterly joyous at the notion of it.
"Yes." I almost rolled my eyes. Damn it…
One of the few mistakes I made with Mina was to let her in on the fact that I was waiting for three other people to arrive in El Paso. Since the moment she realized I had not been placed on this earth for the purpose of being perpetually stoic and alone, she hadn't let up about them. She wanted to know every detail of their lives, but for their own sakes I limited what I told her.
"Look at you!" she squealed, "Look at your hair!"
"We were just out of West Point." I sighed, "We had to wear it short."
"You didn't tell me you were a soldier!" she spoke with mock indignation and slapped me playfully across the arm.
"You didn't ask." I shrugged.
"What side did you fight on?" she asked
When I looked away I caught a glimpse of her in the corner of my eyes. She looked absolutely devastated by what she'd just asked, but I quickly turned back and just shook my head.
"Not today?" she asked in a small voice.
"Not today." I answered.
"Well fine, Mr. Grim-and-Grouchy." She pouted, "Tell me about your friends."
"They're terribly uninteresting and you'll meet them when they get here." I told her swiftly and surgically.
"You shouldn't make a girl wait, you know." she demanded and pointed at the first face on the picture, "Who's this?"
"If I tell you, will you promise to wake up early and go riding with me in the morning?" I challenged her.
"If that's what it takes." She sighed heavily. Mina's price for living two lives was that she never got enough sleep, though her boundless reservoir of energy and enthusiasm somehow kept her going.
"Fine then." I agreed and looked at the face on the picture, "He's James McCaffery, or Joker James as we call him."
"Is he funny?" she asked with a laugh.
"Oh, yes." I answered, "He's a lighthearted soul unless you cross him. And a few unlucky Yankees crossed him on the Belle Lucy before the war."
"Was that a boat of some kind?" she keenly inferred.
"Yar." I replied, "See, he was a cardshark working the steamboats on the Allegheny River. Lower stakes than down south, but plenty more suckers. He used to go by Jade back then and we still sometimes let it slip when we're a few sheets to the wind. He hates it now; hates what it reminds him of."
"Who's the shaggy dog?" she smirked at a glowering, mutton-chopped, long-haired figured seated beside me looking away from the camera.
"That'll be Ned Forrest." I chuckled, "Not much for photographs, that one."
"Aww." Mina purred, "Is he shy?"
"He's as blunt as a bedpost and about as shy as a cavalry company at full gallop." I answered, "But he's a good friend. He just doesn't like to waste time on things that he doesn't think important."
"Like photographs with friends?" Mina scrunched her nose at Ned's sour mug.
"What sorts of things does he think are important?" Mina was obviously intrigued by dear old Ned.
"Whiskey and firearms, mostly." I told her honestly.
"Oh, you boys…" she sighed. Her eye caught the last face on the photo and she did a bit of a double take, "Oh, my."
"I've certainly never seen that reaction before." I told her ironically.
"He's quite…" Mina searched for a proper word, "Um…"
"Zach likes to dress up." I warned.
"I'll say he does." She said as she regarded his snow-white, immaculately pressed dress uniform with the golden tasseled epaulettes and a gaudy tricorn hat complete with peacock plume sticking straight out from the side of his head, "Zach, huh?"
"His full name is Zechariah Kearney Bellefontaine the Second."I spoke as high-and-mightily as possible, "His father, the right honorable Zach the First is a Missouri lawyer with more money than God and he likes to remind us of it by saddling us with his ne'er-do-wrong son, whom he adores slightly less than himself."
"So you aren't really friends with him?" Mina asked.
"Oh, no." I answered truthfully, "We're friends. Zach just makes it more work for us than other folks might think it's worth."
"Seems like a strange bunch." Mina keenly observed.
"You have no idea."
"Sir?" a voice behind me stirred me from my silent reverie as I watched the street and waited for Mina to appear one sunny morning.
"Are you Mr. Kenneth Palmer?" he asked.
"Who's asking?" I was guarded.
"Western Union, sir." The man answered and produced a yellow slip of paper from his pocket, "A message for you. The telegraph office is down Hayes Street at the corner of Mesa Avenue if you wish to make a reply."
"Thanks." I told him curtly and dropped a silver coin into his hand as he graciously turned away.
I unfolded the paper and read:
THE PHANTOM ACE IS IN EL PASO. WATCH YOURSELF. RAILROAD BRIDGE DAMAGED OUTSIDE TULSA. TRAIN DELAYED. HAVE TO TAKE THE LONG WAY AROUND.
HORSES TIRED. STILL TWO WEEKS OUT. WAIT FOR US.
I folded the paper and tucked it into my jeans pocket as swift as I could. I began to scan up and down the streets, eyes unblinking, like a hawk searching for its prey. Hell, let's dispense with the metaphor. I was searching for my prey. My hand eagerly twitched towards my gun, but I held it at bay. Too much preparation to risk it; even if things weren't going down the way we'd planned. Still, this is why I always went first. Any plan was salvageable if there was enough time to adapt.
The Ace wasn't supposed to be here until after my friends arrived. That was the whole point: strength in numbers. There were rumors about him, after all, that could not go unheeded. For one, he was almost impossible to track. They didn't call him The Phantom Ace for nothing. He'd knocked over the Swarovski shop in San Fransisco and then proceeded to hustle almost every faro and poker table from here to Tombstone. Every time the house called him for cheating the Ace would empty the safe and extort all the money and jewels he could from the other gamblers before he shot his way out of town. Apparently, he also wore a mask which made identifying him even harder. All in all, he was not a man I was looking forward to facing down alone.
A flash of gold called my attention as I finally saw Mina approaching, eyes sparkling, her hand waving me down. All thoughts of the man they called Ace were replaced by the vision of my personal queen of hearts.
That night after Feleena had danced I walked with Mina down the dark streets of El Paso. The stars shone brightly along with a full moon such to the point that my desert vixen took it upon herself to do some window shopping well after midnight.
"So how's a girl with all your wit and wiles end up in a slum like this?" I asked. It had been weeks since I last tried to pry the answer from her. In light of the Ace's arrival, though I still hadn't laid eyes on him, it might have been my last chance.
"I'm from New York." She admitted. For once she wasn't talking with her customary smirk, "My parents passed away several years ago."
Passed away? I thought to myself. I reckon not.
She obviously realized her own sour pronunciation had given her away and she reiterated, "They were killed in the street. In front of me."
"The Draft Riots." She answered coldly, "They went out to protest and they were shot down."
"I'm sorry." I offered futilely.
"My father was too much of an idealist for the city to endure." She sounded almost as if she were confessing, "He had friends at Tammany Hall, but they were the ones who divided up my inheritance among themselves and left me out on the street."
"That place is a den of thieves and murderers." I spat. I despised politicians; I despised even more the greasy, skulking creatures that held their leashes.
"I drifted west hoping to reconnect with an estranged aunt on my mother's side in Iowa, but she had died of yellow fever two years earlier and no one had notified us." Mina soldiered on, "So I just kept going."
"It must have been hard to make it here on your own." I suggested.
"I wasn't always on my own." She spoke in a very businesslike tone.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't…" she snapped, but then steadied herself, "I don't want to talk about that. Not yet."
"Okay."I agreed. I was wary that I had done some harm and the conversation was over, but I persisted, "What made you settle down here?"
"I passed through dozens of cities, but when I came here…" she glanced at the street behind us and then up at the moon and stars above, "I just felt like I should stay."
"And Feleena?" I asked, "Where did she come from?"
Mina looked weary, but answered: "My head." After a pause she continued, "I wanted a new life; a new start. I wanted to be a different person after what had happened so I found Artemis, the old guitarista, and he taught me how to dance."
"So why a Mexican dancing girl in a shit cantina like Rosa's?" I was puzzled, "Why not a doctor, or a teacher, or a nun?"
Her smile was wry, "Because I like to have fun."
With that she jumped off the boardwalk and into the dusty street and twirled around once in the moonlight. She was so carefree and so light on her feet. It was hard to imagine that this fun-loving blonde was the same person who stole my heart with a sultry flamenco just a month or so ago.
"So do I get to ask you difficult personal questions now?" she asked expectantly.
I moved carefully and swiftly to pull her close to me with one arm around her waist. I hadn't ever been as overtly physical with her before, but she didn't seem surprised and she didn't pull away.
"I'll tell you what." I bargained, "A kiss goodnight and tomorrow I'll tell you anything you want to know, right down to the recipe for my grandmother's famous buttermilk biscuits."
"Biscuits, huh?" she dodged playfully, "That's it?"
"They're very good." I pushed my luck.
"They'd better be." She stated finally, slapped my arm from her waist, and threw both of hers around my neck.
I was expecting a peck on the cheek. What I got was better. Better than biscuits and that's for damn sure.
I wasn't used to talking about myself to anyone; not Joker James, or Ned Forrest, or Zach the Second, but for Mina I would make the exception. My time in El Paso –no- my time with Mina had changed me; opened me up, somehow. I'd tell her anything she wanted to know, just like I said. Tonight I'd bare my soul that "Mexican" maiden. Even the telegram I received earlier in the day could wait. I folded it up and left it in my back pocket.
I'd tell her about the war; about fighting for the South. I'd tell her about my family plantation, Elysion, just on the outskirts of Savannah. I'd tell her about the slaves that my family and I smuggled into the Underground Railroad even as I fought against the Union that wanted to free them. I'd tell her about watching Elysion burn to ashes when Sherman's army marched through Georgia. I'd tell her about losing my faith in government, then in the men who ran governments, then men in general. I'd tell her about the Four Kings and how I turned to bounty hunting to fill the void that the bloodlust of the Civil War's end had left…
It wasn't a conversation that I was looking forward to, but Mina deserved to know. If she stood up, slapped my face, and never looked my way again I'd think none the less of her. Hell, I'd probably think more of her than I already do, but if she seriously wanted to saddle herself with a broken old soldier like me, she deserved to know the full truth of it.
After she danced, of course.
When I stepped through the batwing doors of Rosa's Cantina my spine stiffened up like a California redwood. Mina was sitting at a table –Mina of the golden hair and red bow, mind you, not the vivacious Feleena- laughing. Laughing with another man. She caught my eye and gestured for me to join them at the rickety table. My knuckles cracked at my sides and one stride into the cantina I caught a good glimpse of the man sitting across from her sipping Rosa's home brew: The Phantom Ace himself.
Good, sweet savior, he was even more gaudy and showy than Zach. The Ace had dressed himself in a long white duster with a collar much too high and embroidered down each arm with spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds. He wore a fringed buckskin vest beneath and a pair of white leather chaps over his jeans which showed not a trace of dirt. He had a tall black Stetson with four playing cards, a flush of Aces, pinned in the band and just as the rumors advertised, he covered his face with a white domino mask which curled into points at the ends.
"This is my friend that I was telling you about." Mina told the unwelcome guest as I approached, "Ken, this is the legendary Phantom Ace."
"Good to meet you, Mr. Palmer." The Ace cordially extended a hand.
If I had a machete with me I'd have cut his hand off. My vision swam with red haze. A three-quarter empty bottle of whiskey sat at the Ace's left. A pile of shot glasses were stacked like a child might in front of him. Mina sat across, obviously haven partaken of some herself. I didn't shake. I just stared a hole straight through him.
"That's fine. I understand some folk don't take to shaking hands." he returned, "I was just having a friendly drink with this nice young lady."
"And it looks like you drank enough for both of ya." I motioned swiftly to the dwindling bottle, "And you're in my chair."
"I beg pardon?" he asked confused
"There's no faro tables to hustle in here, Ace." I told him icily, "How about we go find some?"
"Boys…" Mina spoke warningly.
"Ohhh…" it suddenly dawned on the white-clad man, "You must be talking about that unfortunate business in Tombstone."
"Yer damn right I'm talking about it!" I shot back and the Ace's neck went stiff, "And I don't appreciate trash like you spinning your lies for a girl like Mina!"
"Lies?" Mina asked, "Ken, what—"
"Not now." I grunted. I was at work.
"Now, listen." Ace took a stand, "I was at the Marshal's office just this morning. We got that whole mess sorted out."
"The Marshal?" I snickered, "Son, who do you think hired the Four Kings to track you down in the first place?"
"The…" the color bled from the Ace's face which was now as white as the rest of his getup, "The Four Kings?"
"Ken…" Mina gasped. Her shock was just as great as his. It seems as though she'd heard of my friends before. And of me.
I reached up and removed my dirty hat and pulled a twisted, folded and worn playing card from the inside band. I unraveled it to reveal the King of Spades. It was still singed around the edges from the fire that leveled Elysion. James, Ned, and Zach carried the other suits. They were our calling cards.
"You think you were the only one who wore a card in your hat, Ace?" I taunted as I replaced the card and dropped the hat back on my head.
"Now… now just wait a min—" he stammered, but I cut him off.
"Get your reeking filth out of that chair and away from my girl." I seethed through my teeth. When he delayed a second too long for my liking I boomed, "NOW!"
He did as I bid him and jerked out of the chair. I moved up, circled around him and made sure that his back was to the street as I sized him up. Not a terribly imposing man, but not scrawny, either. Blonde hair, blue eyes behind his mask. If he wasn't dressed so damned ridiculously no one would take a second glance at him.
"Let's go down and see the Marshal, huh?" I asked hoping to swiftly end this conflict.
But the Ace had fortified himself with a bit too much amber courage and leaned on his bravado instead of his brains, "I don't have to go with you anywhere."
"Boy, you really ought to." I tried to warn him.
"Don't call me boy!" Ace thundered and his hand dropped to his hip, "You god-damned bounty hunters are all the same. No code, no soul. You just take what you want." He turned his glance to Mina, "And who you want."
My blood was boiling. It happened infrequently, but a few times in my life I had been in this position. I knew what was coming and try as I might, I knew I wouldn't be able to stop it. Nobody, but nobody spoke about Mina as property. She wasn't with me because I claimed her or bought her at an auction; she was with me by choice. If the Ace couldn't see that, he didn't deserve to see at all.
"I'm gonna count to the three." I explained as my hand almost imperceptibly began to drift downwards, "One."
"I'm an innocent man." The Phantom Ace lied to my face.
Seconds passed. They could've been days. Rosa had already taken cover behind her bar with a serving tray clasped over the top of her head.
"I won't be bullied by you." The Ace roared and threw back his coat. The evening sun glinted off the polished steel and ivory grip of his custom six-shooter.
The newspapers would espouse such nonsense as the "blinding speed" and "unfathomable quickness" with which our bloody business was transacted. In truth, that Ace was so drunk that in the time it took him to find the snap and unbutton his holster I could have closed the distance and brained him with the butt end of my pistol and let him sleep it off in the county drunk tank. As it was, I gave no thought to settling our affair peaceably. My better sense had departed as is so often the case with smitten men. He had merely shared a drink and a few empty boasts with Mina, but for those few red seconds he might as well have raped her in the street. I always prefer to take my bounties in alive, but this contract held the all-important two-letter clause: "or."
With a sure grip my pistol cleared leather while the Ace was still trying to remember which hip he wore his holster on. A second later the heavy slam of the revolver offered the final punctuation to our too-short argument. The power of the bullet lifted Ace from his feet and he flew backwards and landed at the foot of the batwings, arms splayed and spread eagle, with a hot lead slug cooling between the two halves of what little brains he had to begin with.
Mina didn't so much as make a whisper at the gunshot. When I turned to her she looked at me, mouth agape, but eyes steady and still; a look almost of … satisfaction; as one might look at the twist resolution of a dime novel read in some more civilized corner of the country.
But there was another look in her eyes. A look that I'd seen on the face of the Phantom Ace just before a bullet ripped it in two. The same look I'd seen on the faces of every other bounty I'd gunned down. The same look as on the face of the Union Captain who set fire to Elysion when I tracked him down all those years later and returned the favor.
Sheer, bloody terror.
I couldn't look at her again. Those eyes that had bewitched me now seemed to scream in endless agony just at the sight of me. She trembled when I took the slightest step towards her and I realized that all the things I came here tonight wanting to tell her paled in comparison to the things that I'd actually done in my life. Those were things I couldn't tell her. Instead I showed her. Right in front of her. A private performance from one of the Four Kings for a horrified young girl who thought she'd seen the worst life had to offer.
I did the only thing I could do: I turned and ran. I ran out the back door of Rosa's Cantina, untied the first horse from the hitching post that I found and rode as hard as I could away from the cooling corpse of the Phantom Ace and the girl with two lives, both of which I'd now ruined with a single bullet.
That was three weeks ago. I've been on the run ever since. Spent most of my time laying low in the New Mexico badlands occasionally venturing to smaller towns to steal a bit of food and water. Each night I would sit under the bright canopy of the Milky Way and read the telegram that I received on my last day in El Paso:
MISINFORMATION. BOUNTY ON THE PHANTOM ACE RECALLED. CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY.
NEW BOUNTY ISSUED. "TUXEDO MASK" LAST SEEN HEADED NORTH TOWARDS COLORADO SPRINGS.
MEET US THERE.
I haven't been able to send a reply to the other Kings since then. I'm sure by now they've heard what happened; about how I murdered an innocent man for no greater crime than my own jealousy. My nights are tormented by the gunshot and the terror in Mina's eyes. If I could stop sleeping I would, but I'm exhausted. So is the horse that I stole. He whinnies and neighs and finally comes to a stop so I slide out of the saddle and let him rest. It's evening.
I'm on a hill south of El Paso. I can see the lights from Rosa's Cantina far below me. Somewhere in that town a blonde (or maybe it's black tonight) haired girl is trying to forget me. She's trying to have a good night's sleep. She's trying to keep herself from thinking that one day, that murderous madman might return. She's trying not to be excited by the idea…
I see torches. Five of them. Texas Rangers by the cut of their dusters. Another party of probably a dozen or so federal marshals patrol the area every night looking for a cold-blooded killer with long hair and a big gun. Not even a passing description which means that Mina, as they would have surely questioned her, didn't sell me out. Dearest Mina. Why'd you do a damned fool thing like that?
All I had to do was get to her. Even if I could just catch one last glimpse of her it would be enough. I could wait until night, slip past the patrols and… No. Who the hell am I kidding? Even if I wanted to, I couldn't sneak down there. I'd be full of holes before I made it to Rosa's. But maybe, just maybe, I'd be able to flag them down before they fired and explain what happened.
Maybe. I laughed and lit another cigarette.
So now here on the hill overlooking El Paso, under the stars, with the last cigarette in my pack and a horse that won't last out the week comes the rain. A thunderous desert downpour drenches me as I watch. The rangers scuttle inside a saloon and the posse of marshals disperses until the monsoon has passed.
Is this my shot at a getaway, or my shot at redemption? Right now either was mine for the taking and either one I knew I'd find in the arms of a girl who smelled of sunshine. I mounted up again, a tired man on a tired horse, and rode down the hill.