The Silent Land
I'm not a superstitious kinda feller. Don't have much time for religion neither. Seems to me, all that fixing your hope on something you can't touch, or even see, is no more use than barkin' at a knot. I ain't prayed since the day Fynn died. Reckon that day I nailed all that prayin' stuff to the counter. I figure we shape our own luck, good or bad. A feller's better off putting his faith in his own sound wits and some good steel hardware.
Don't believe in fate neither. Leastways, I didn't till the day them two fellers came riding into town. Cartwright their name was, and I hadn't heard that name in a long time. But I ain't never likely to forget it neither. Ain't much action in Redditch, but it allers seems folks come by just when you've set yourself down for a jaw or some shut eye. I didn't know who it was first off, of course. Couple of strangers pulled up in front of the livery. Looked like they'd been a while out on the trail judging by the colour of 'em and the velvet couches strapped to their saddles.
"Reckon them fellers is gonna head for the hotel or drop by the saloon first?" Nate asked me.
I squinted lazily. "They look kinda dry to me. My bet's on the beer."
I was wrong though. When them two fellers emerged from the stable, they headed straight on over to the hotel. Nate pulled a kite 'cause he'd just got his pipe puffin' and it was Mr. Wallis's afternoon off, which meant he had to drag hisself back over the road and check 'em in. I sucked on my steamer as I watched him go. Seemed likely those two fellers would be heading my way pretty soon, judging by the looks of 'em. All that dirt and dust, they'd be bound to be wantin' a bath. I still reckoned they'd be looking for a beer first though, which gave me another half hour or so.
Redditch ain't much of a town, but it suits me. I had enough years living fast and tough when I was younger. We get a few hardheads kicking up a row now and then but real trouble here is scarce as hen's teeth, and that suits me just fine. I don't need no more trouble in my life. Leastways, I didn't think I did. Not till Nate came back on over and told me that them two boys was brothers and they were called Cartwright. When I heard that name again, something inside me froze.
Kept it from showing on my face, though. I'm an expert at foolin' folks. Years of practice. Pa always said a man's feelin's ain't nobody's business but his own. Taught me that right from the time I was in my cradle. Reckon he was right too. Show your feelin's and somebody's gonna find your weak corner sooner or later. Fynn shoulda listened more. I tried to tell him, teach him the things Pa taught me, but the kid never got the hang of it. Allers let his feelin's get the better of him.
"Them boys is after a bath," said Nate, settling himself back on the bench. "Told 'em as I'd let you know so's you could have 'em ready. Sep'rate tubs and plenty of hot water."
When I first wandered into this dusty hole in the mountains, there wa'nt no bath house here, and I sure coulda done with one! When I decided I liked it here, liked the way life seemed to pass this place right by, I talked to Mr. Wallis and Nate about the possibility of settin' one up. That's when Mr. Wallis suggested the old jailhouse. It'd been standing empty all winter, since they built the new office at the other end of the street. Like I say, Redditch is on the mountain, and the old jailhouse is built right into the rock. Don't get much natural light, but then folks taking a bath don't seem to mind that overmuch. 'Course, Mr. Wallis didn't see the irony in his suggestion, and I wan't about to enlighten him none. He said he'd help me do the place up. He could see it would be good for what he called "reciprocal" business. The first time me and Nate looked round that place, I didn't know whether to shudder or laugh when I saw the cell out back. Cut right into the rock. I'd spent ten years wishing myself out of a hole just like that, and now here I was lookin' to make it my home.
I started off sleepin' in that windowless jail, but as soon as I'd made me enough ballast, I built a room on the side for my living area, and closed the door on that lockup. A man can have enough of iron bars and I didn't need no more reminding. 'Cept, I weren't paying no mind to fate back then. Seems to me now, nothing that happened back then was a coincidence, even though it all felt like it at the time. The place does good business now. This town's full of miners with more'n enough cash to lay out for a weekly soak in the tub. Folks round here have gotten used to me now. No one hereabouts even calls me Simon no more, 'cept Nate; they all call me Soapy.
I watched them two Cartwright fellers head on down to the saloon. I was itching to ask Nate whether one of 'em called hisself Adam Cartwright, but then Nate woulda been wondering why I was asking. All I could tell of 'em from across the street was that one—the tall one wearing the red shirt and black leather vest and walking with long, measured strides—was older than the other one—the one in a grey jacket—who looked no more'n a kid. I wondered what Adam Cartwright would look like now. Twelve years—twelve long years—had passed since I last set eyes on that man. Even then I didn't get much more'n a glimpse of him. Still, I wasn't likely to forget his face neither. And Adam Cartwright had been tall...
I was ready for 'em when they arrived. Two tubs full of good clean water, all hot and steaming, and more on the boil. I watched them from my waiting room; saw them cross the street towards me, my heart a-pumpin' in spite of myself, and I still couldn't be certain 'cause the day was as hot as a whorehouse on nickel night, and their faces were in shadow beneath the brims of their hats. Only when they stopped right outside my door did the older one swipe his hat from his head and fan his face with it, then my heart took a leap like a startled jackrabbit, right into my throat, and I had to step back into the shadow of the room to make sure my face didn't give the game away.
"Feller at the hotel said you'd have a couple of baths ready for me and my brother," said Adam Cartwright, pulling money from his pocket.
The strange sense of fate that had hit me in the gut the first time I heard the name Cartwright, now gripped me again, so hard it was all I could do to keep from shaking. Adam Cartwright had just walked right in under my nose, and his kid brother. I could almost hear fate—long denied her just dues—cackling with glee.
I was back under control by then. I met his gaze, wondering if he would know me, but there was no recognition in the dark face. I wondered if he mighta remembered Fynn. But Fynn had been just a boy that day, kinda like the kid tagging along just behind Adam Cartwright. Twelve years changes a boy into a man. Twelve years had changed Adam Cartwright, but not in essentials. He had filled out. He was harder, more rugged than I remembered, and days on the trail had left him dirt-stained and dark-jowled, but there was no mistaking that face. He was older, but he was the same man.
The two of them took themselves off to the tubs. I slid a bottle of whiskey from under the counter and poured myself a tumbler to steady my nerves. The man I'd hated for twelve years, blamed every day for twelve years, was here, under my roof. With his own kid brother. Was that coincidence? I swallowed back the liquor, but I was still shaking inside. Much as I hated him, much as I held him responsible for Fynn's death, I'd never hunted him down. Was I too much of a coward? Was this Fynn's doing? Was he lookin' down on me, tired of waiting for the retribution that shoulda been his? Had Fynn brought Adam Cartwright and his brother here?
Musta sat there longer than I reckoned, like I was in some kind of a daze, like the world had stopped being real, 'cause Adam Cartwright's voice made me jump as he came through the door, in fresh clothes, his wet hair slick and dark.
"Anywhere round here a feller can get a shave? Barber next door looked kind of shut up when we walked past. Blind was down on his door."
I shook my head. "That's just Lyle. Prob'ly dozing out back. Just give him a holler, he'll be right out."
"My brother wants to soak a while longer," said Adam Cartwright. "He'd like some more hot water."
I watched him walk out of my door and hammer on Lyle's, my mind numb. I went out to fill the pails with more hot water, like a man in a trance. Fate—or was it Fynn?—had delivered Adam Cartwright and his brother into my hands, and though I had no plan, no idea what was gonna happen, I just knew something would; like I was in the grip of a controlling force that was pushing me forward on a path I couldn't see. I knew it just as sure as I knew tomorrow was Thursday.
I tipped the water over the kid in the tub and he grinned up at me and thanked me. He wasn't very old. Sixteen, maybe seventeen. Then he slid down into the water and closed his eyes, humming to himself. I thought how Fynn used to grin like that. I looked down on the wet curls on the kid's head and I thought about Fynn's hair, all sticky and tousled with perspiration. I thought how this kid was kinda skinny, and I remembered how Fynn's ribs had poked through his skin. I thought what a disadvantage this kid was at, with his gun on the chair, resting on his pile of discarded clothes. I thought how trusting he was, lying there with his eyes closed. And I thought how easy it would be to kill him as he lay there. Watch the life ebb out of him into all that good hot water I'd just poured for him. It would be easy; real, real easy. Like lickin' butter off a knife.
Shoulda known the kid would give me no trouble. Not with Fynn looking down on me the way he was doin'. Even so, I knew I was gonna have to plan more carefully for Adam Cartwright. Didn't reckon he would go down as easy as his brother. I put the kid on the bunk in that abandoned jail cell out back and it was just like everything was falling into place, right the way it was allers meant to. Just for a moment, I remembered how I used to carry Fynn into bed, when he was jus' a little feller and we sat too long on the porch waitin' for Pa to come home; remembered how his hair used to smell faintly of fresh bread as I settled him down on our mattress, where the straw poked out like stubble on an old man's chin. Jus' for a moment, I a'most felt sorry for that Cartwright kid. Weren't like he'd gotten to choose his brother, no more'n Fynn did. Both of 'em jus' got dealt a deuce.
So I set him down comfortable, the way I used to do with Fynn. Put his clean clothes on the floor next to him; left him a candle burning so's he'd be able to see 'em when he opened his eyes again. He looked kinda peaceful lying there. 'Cept for the blood in his hair. Looked just like he was sleepin'. Like a babe, as my Ma used to say. Yeah, she knew. She knew how some babies sleep real deep! Like the one me and Pa buried in a box out back of the cabin. First time me and death really rubbed shoulders that day. Now we're old buddies; real intimate acquaintances. Close as my own shadow now. Ain't no way of escapin' death. Fixes its hooks in us from the moment we're born.
When I was a kid, Ma used to tell me a story. A legend about a giant who hid his heart in a well. Inside a duck's egg! Figured if he didn't keep it inside his body, nobody could kill him. Sure was up to trap, that giant. Wisht I coulda hid my heart somewhere safe. Somewhere death couldn't get his muck forks into me. See, dyin' ain't just about taking that final breath. It ain't that simple. It's a long, drawn out process. Your heart bleeds out real slow. Mine started bleedin' the day Pa and me buried that little box in the ground behind the cabin.
Yeah, I watched 'em all die. Ma; Pa; Fynn; the baby brother who came and went afore the sun even rose in the sky. Afore we even give him a name. Ma was never right after that. Never got her strength back. My ma never was strong. She had skin so pale, I could see right through it. See all the veins criss-crossing, like lines on a map. Used to wonder why her blood looked blue 'steada red. It was women's troubles did for her, Pa allers said. I was just a kid and a kid don't ask nothing about no women's troubles. Don't reckon Pa rightly knew hisself. What did Pa know 'bout women? He was a lumberjack, jus' like his pa before him. And his four brothers. Up in the mountains. That's what he did, right up until the day he met my ma, movin' about from job to job, wherever they was logging. Then he met Ma and I came along soon after. He bought some land, tried to settle down. That's what Ma wanted. A place to call home. But Pa allers hankered after his old life. Missed the other fellers. Guess that's why he spent so much time in the saloon.
The kid didn't stir as I locked the cell door on him. Adam Cartwright was gonna be back soon and I needed to be ready. I already knew what I was gonna do and I knew Fynn would approve. I could a'most hear him laughing as I shut the outer door and headed back to empty the tubs. Could a'most hear him whisperin' in my ear.
When Adam Cartwright came back a while later, all slick and polished, I told him his brother had wandered on over to the saloon to find a beer. The edges of his mouth curved upwards, as if it wanted to smile and he weren't about to let it.
"That's Joe," he said. "Can't wait for anything."
So, the kid's name was Joe.
I pointed to the floor next to the tub were the kid – Joe – had been.
"That your brother's shirt?"
Adam looked where I'd dropped the shirt. "Yeah, that'd be his." He stepped past me and bent to pick it up. That's when I pulled the gun on him – his brother's gun. He heard the click and froze.
"Straighten up nice and slow," I told him, as I tugged the iron from his holster.
He did just as I told him. "What's this about?" he asked, his voice smooth as a fresh-rolled field.
Sweat was breakin' out all over me, yet Adam Cartwright was as cool as a new-drawn pitcher. I prodded him in the back with the pistol and he went ahead of me out the back. He hesitated in the doorway as he caught sight of his brother in the cell. The boy was sitting up on the edge of the bunk, half dressed, head in his hands, the blood in his hair shining wet in the candlelight.
Adam Cartwright's eyes darted atwixt me and his brother as I unlocked the cell door, keeping the gun trained square on his chest. "What's this about?" he asked again as he passed me to join his brother behind bars. The boy had raised his head, and was watching us, face as bleached as summer grass.
"Don't ya know?" I said, as I closed the door behind him and turned the key in the lock.
He still didn't know me, I could tell that by the expression on his face. Maybe that irked me a hooter. The way he'd messed up my life, I figure he might have remembered.
"I'll remind you," I said, and waved the gun at the boy. Joe. "You kid, over there."
The kid looked where I was gesturing, at the back of the cell, and frowned, confused.
I fixed the gun on his brother so's he'd know I weren't messing. "Move!"
Joe rose, looking none too steady on his timbers and went slowly. Once he reached the back of the cell, he leaned against the wall, like he might fall over if he didn't. He looked kinda sick. Mebbe I'd slugged him too hard. I flexed my fingers around the gun in my hand, my palm wet and sticky. Wouldn't do to let Adam Cartwright see my hesitation. I knew what I had to do; I could still hear Fynn murmurin' in my ear, and this time I wouldn't let him down. I remembered the day we'd gone huntin' together, to track down a mountain lion. Followed its trail right up into the hills. Cornered it in a steep gully. Face to face with the creature, suddenly I couldn't shoot. Just kinda froze. It crouched there, spitting defiance at us, all sleek and gleaming, and it was like I was overcome with pity. Fynn took it out with a single shot. Fynn never hesitated.
I couldn't afford no pity this time. Adam Cartwright was watching me, his face giving away nothing. No flicker of fear in his eyes, even with my gun fixed on him. Seemed like his coolness jes' made me sweat all the more. Did he think I wouldn't do it? Did he think I was a coward?
"What is it you want?" he asked.
I had to wipe my face with my arm. Sweat was trickling right into my eyes. I knew Adam Cartwright had seen.
"You don't remember me, do you, Cartwright?"
He shook his head. Damn, but he was sure of hisself!
"Remember Morgan's Bluff? Twelve years ago. Remember that?"
His eyes were steady, but he knew then. He said, "The stagecoach robbery."
"Yeah." I licked my lips. They tasted of salt. "You shot my brother, remember that?"
For a few seconds, he said nothing, then his eyes narrowed, just a fraction. "He came riding down. Out of the rocks. Shooting."
"He was jes' a kid."
"A kid with a gun. There were women there. And a child. I had no choice."
"There's always a choice, Cartwright. You killed him."
No mistakin' the frown this time. "I shot him in the arm. He came to the trial. He was fine."
"He wa'nt fine." I shook my head. "He wa'nt fine! He died. He died in agony."
Cartwright said nothing. Jes' kept lookin' at me as if I was lunk-headed. My heart had started its thumpin' again 'cos I knew what I had to do.
"They took that bullet out, but it never healed proper. Then they slung him in that prison, even though he was just a kid. I was there with him, Cartwright. His arm blew up like a bloated sheep, purple and black and stinkin'. So, you know what they did? They cut it off. I watched 'em do it. Watched 'em saw off my brother's arm, while he screamed and begged for 'em to stop. Then the fever came for him. Weren't nothing I could do 'cept watch him die slowly. I ain't never seen no one in so much pain. You did that to him, Cartwright. You killed my brother."
All the time I was speakin', Adam Cartwright was watching me. When I finished, he dropped his eyes an' all I could hear was my own breath, sounding strange and harsh in the silence.
"I'm sorry about your brother," he said. "I didn't know he'd died. I never meant to kill him."
Jes' for a moment, I hesitated. Jes' like I did when me and that mountain lion came face to face. An' I might'n have done jes' like I did that day 'cept for Fynn, 'cos all of a sudden, I hearn his voice in my ear, jes' like he was standin' right behind me. Even swear I felt his hand in my back. "Go on, Si," he murmured. "Do it. Do it now. Shoot, Si, shoot!"
My heart was racing so hard, when my finger squeezed back on that trigger, it was as if the bullet exploded inside of me. Adam Cartwright jumped. I saw his dark eyes widen in his pale face. The kid gasped and lurched, and made a stumbling step towards his brother.
I'd meant to stay. Meant to savor my moment of victory. After all, I'd waited a long time. But I had to light a shuck out of there. It was as if I could already smell the blood, even over the stink of the gunsmoke. Like the smell of death. Had to get out of that room afore I puked. It was the whiskey, I told myself. Should never have drunk all that whiskey.
Dang, but it was a long time afore I could make myself go back in that cell room. Even after I finally stopped my stummick heavin', I couldn' get my hands to quit shakin', even though I must've supped enough whiskey to drown a cat. I knew it weren't no good sittin' there. There were things had to be done. Had to get rid of the Cartwrights' horses afore anyone started thinkin' summat was wrong. Didn't want Nate asking no questions about his guests neither. Nate's a good friend, but I ain't never told him the truth 'bout me. When I came here to Redditch, I left all that behind. Leastways, I thought I did. Seems like the past has a way of catching up to you, no matter how far or how fast you run.
As it turned out, dealing with the horses was a cinch. Waited till the sun started to slip behind the mountain, then I moseyed on over to the stables with a bottle of whiskey and the liquor did the rest. One-eyed Jake enjoys a good jaw, and he sure is a sucker for the coffin varnish. By the time I left him, dusk was creeping over Redditch.
Mr. Wallis was back on duty. We passed some conversation, casual like, 'bout his sister an' her nippers. He'd been to visit 'em that afternoon. Most times, I'd have been int'rested. I like Mr. Wallis. He's a real genuine kinda feller. But that evenin', jes' about every word he tol' me went straight past me, like smoke in the wind. Did manage to catch a glimpse of the register. Saw the name, Cartwright, next to Room 4. I asked Mr. Wallis if Nate was about, an' he jerked his head upwards an' said, yeah, Nate was in his room. I took a detour to Room 4. Weren't much in the way of plunder. Them Cartwright boys had been carrying their saddlebags when they came by my bath house. But I picked up a coat and a coupla bed rolls and went out the back way. One-eyed Jake was already snorin', full as a tick, when I got back to the stable. It all seemed so dadburned easy. I saddled up the Cartwrights' animals and led 'em out the back. It was dark by then.
I had a long walk back after I skungled them horses. I thought about my ma and pa, an' Fynn, and a whole lotta other things I ain't thought about in a long time, and jes' for a while, I felt real good. Like a drifter who's finally found his way home. Like my brother could feel proud of me at last. But as I drew closer to the town, the whiskey I'd drunk earlier was turning to lead inside of me. When I seed the buildings hunkering down ahead of me in the moonlight, my hands started their danged quivering all over again. Somewhere in that darkness was that cell cave with them two fellers in it, one of 'em shot an' bleedin'. I hadn't even hung around to find out if my aim had been right. What if I'd shot crooked? What if he was already lyin' dead? Then it weren't jus' my hands ashakin', it was my whole body, tremblin' like a frightened dog.
I told myself it didn't matter none nohow. He was gonna die anyways. We're all dyin' one way or another; jus' this one was gonna die sooner. So why did I have to force my feet to keep moving forwards? Why couldn't I hear Fynn's voice tellin' me what to do next?
"I'm doin' this for you, kid," I whispered, as I reached my own door. 'Stead of opening it, I leaned 'gainst it and tried to steady my breathing. Right up till that moment, I'd never 'preciated jes' what I'd found in Redditch these last coupla years. Goldarnit! I'd been happy! For the first time in my whole stinkin', miserable life, I'd been at peace. Now the old enemy was back. Crawlin' all over me. Pricklin' like sweat all over my body. Fear! Gut-chawing, skin-shrinkin' fear.
"Fynn," I whispered, my voice croakin', jes' as if someone had their fingers closed around my throat. "Fynn, where are you? Hell and damnation, boy, don't you leave me now!"
He laughed then. No word of a lie, I hearn him as clear as if he'd a been standin' right there next to me. Always was a joker, my little brother. Liked to catch me out. I shook my head to clear the sweat from my eyes, but I couldn't see nothing through the darkness.
"Come on," I said to him. "Time to see how them Cartwright boys is doing."
The door to them old cells is built like the gate to a fort. Jus' as well, 'cause, when I got there, Adam Cartwright was tearin' up Jake inside that room.
"You yell jus' as much as you want," I told him, though he couldn' hear me since the thick planks were still atween us. You coulda run a freight wagon through the back of that office and none of them townsfolk woulda been any the wiser. Guess Adam Cartwright couldn'ta known that. Guess he was only doin' what I woulda done in his place. Now Fynn was back aside me, I didn' have no more worries about openin' that door.
It hit me straight away. The stink of blood. Dammit, I hate that stink! It's the smell of death. I sure know the smell of death! Smelled it too many times not to. Gets you right in the back of your throat and sticks there.
Adam Cartwright was soaked in the stuff. His red shirt was dark with it, and where he'd rolled up his sleeves, his arms were smeared to the elbows. My throat filled with gorge and I had to swallow real hard. Dang, but I had to hold it together! For Fynn's sake.
"If it's money you want…" said Adam Cartwright.
He didn't finish the sentence 'cos I cut him short with my laugh. I needed to laugh; needed to do something to keep myself from gagging on the stink of death.
"I ain't after money," I told him. I reckon he a'ready knew that judgin' by the way his face kinda hardened.
"What then?" he said. "Revenge? I already told you I didn't even know your brother had died. I shot him in the arm. I never intended to kill him."
I kept my gaze fixed on Adam Cartwright. I didn't look at the kid. Avoided it. Didn't wanna see any more blood. Wasn't sure I could stummick it. Didn' want Adam Cartwright to know how close I was to pukin'. I licked my upper lip, tasting the salt of my own sweat. Salt and blood. Blood and tears. Tasted 'em more times than I care to remember.
"Let me get my brother to a doctor before this goes any further," said Adam Cartwright, like he was in a position to make a deal. "You let him die here and that amounts to murder."
Soon as he said that, my heart started to race so hard, for a moment I thought I might fold on the floor like a piece of calico at a dogfight.
"Shut it!" I told him, and my voice sounded harsh, even to me. "You ain't going nowhere!"
His eyes stayed fixed on me, like he was looking for something he knew was there but couldn't find. The stench of blood was making my head spin. My mouth was full of a sour taste, like I needed to spit. I wanted to head for the door, breathe fresh air again, but I knew I had to look at the kid first. Had to see what I'd done. Didn't want Fynn calling me yellow-bellied.
I'd shot him in the leg. Adam Cartwright shot my brother in the arm, but in a moment of doubt, I'd aimed for the kid's leg. I ain't fired a barkin' iron in a coon's age; leastways not at a man. Shootin' for his arm, I was afeared I'd shoot wide and either kill him outright or miss him the same. An' a limb's a limb. Seemed to me he'd die jus' as slow from a bullet in his leg as in his arm. In the end, death's all the same. It don't matter none. It's the dyin' that hurts. I was gonna make real sure Adam Cartwright traveled every inch of that miserable journey alongside his brother, jus' the way I did with Fynn. Adam Cartwright was going to hurt jes' as much as his brother.
The kid was hurtin' already; didn't take an expert to tell that. On the bunk, hunched against the wall, he weren't hummin' no more. His hands clutched his leg, above his knee, as though he struggled to hold the life inside him, and between his fingers, the crimson oozed.
It's the last straw that broke the camel's back, as my Ma used to say. Panic rose like bile in my throat as I made for the door. Adam Cartwright's plea followed me from the room.
"At least bring us some water."
I didn't get much shut eye that night. Kep' thinkin' I hearn Fynn laughing somewhere close by. Took most of a bottle of whiskey to get me off in the end, somewhere near dawn, then I dreamed crazy dreams where Adam Cartwright was my prisoner, but I knew I couldn't keep him from escapin'. In the dream, I was hammerin' a heavy iron stake into the ground to fasten him to, so's he wouldn't get away. I couldn't figure why I was so dizzy an' weak. Then I saw that the stake had gone right through my middle. Every swing of the hammer impaled me deeper. I woke up sweatin' and shakin' like it was me'd been shot. Sun was over the mountain by then, and someone was aknockin' at the door. I got up cussing, mostly to drown the bangin' of my own heart. But it was Nate. Shoulda known that. Wonderin' why I hadn' opened up shop.
"I ain't feelin' so good," I told him. "I ain't plannin' on openin' up today."
He looked at me, worried. Guess I musta smelled like a saloon on Saturday night. I figure Nate reckoned I might be on one of my benders. Happens sometimes. I ain't proud of it, but it's like a black cloud rises outta nowhere and wraps itself around me. Those dark spells worry Nate.
"I'll get you breakfast," he said. I shook my head. Across the street, One-eyed Jake emerged from the livery, none too steady on his stumps, headin' for the saloon in a zig-zag fashion. Any other day, I'da laughed. Me and' Nate watched him in silence, then Nate turned back to me.
"You see anythin' more of them fellers as rode in here yes'erday? Never came back las' night. Looks like they rode out early too."
I shrugged, like I hardly cared. "I heared there was a poker game going on down at the Palace."
Nate seemed to accept that. He flashed me a crooked grin. "You reckon they got acquainted with Buttress Betty and Lil the Mare?"
I forced myself to smile. Redditch don't boast many womenfolk. Ain't nothin' in this sleepy backwater to draw 'em here, much less keep 'em. Betty and Lil are the main attractions, both of 'em the wrong side of forty. Buttress Betty's too formidable for my likin', but Lil, she's a jewel. They call her the Redditch Mare on account of the fact she's kinda toothsome, but that ain't never bothered me none.
"Reckon those fellers might fancy themselves too grand for the likes of Lil an' Betty," I told Nate.
"You sure you ain't hungry?" he asked, and I shook my head again.
"Might grab me another coupla hours of shut eye," I said.
"Take it easy," said Nate, and I nodded, like I meant it.
"Yeah. I will," I told him, lyin' through my teeth.
Don't know why it was, but that short conversation with Nate somehow pulled me back together. When I closed the door behind him, the panic I'd felt the night before had dissipated, washed away by a determined sense of resolve. I'd waited twelve years to pay back Adam Cartwright for Fynn's sufferin', an' I sure as heck wa'n't gonna waste that chance.
I filled a pitcher with water and grabbed a coupla dry biscuits. Openin' the door to the back room, I hesitated only a moment as two things hit me: the darkness and the smell. I was familiar with them both: the cloying blackness of incarceration and the stink of humanity brought low. The candle I'd left beside the bed had died. I set the pitcher down on the floor and lit the lamp on the wall, next to the door.
I caught the movement as Adam Cartwright jumped to his feet. The light from the lantern drove him backwards a coupla steps, like a blow to the face. He twisted his face, blinkin' and squintin'. I crossed to the cell and put the pitcher and the biscuits close to the bars, where he could reach 'em.
He looked at the food and water then back at me. I tried to read the expression in his dark eyes, but they didn' give much away.
"How long are you planning to keep us here?" he asked.
I looked over at the kid still hunched on the bed. The blanket covered his bloody leg, but he looked sick, his face clammy and yellow-grey in the light from the lamp.
"Depends," I said.
Adam Cartwright's eyes flashed a challenge. "On what?"
"On him," I said, twitchin' my head at the sallow-faced kid. "How long it takes him to die."
"You're gonna wait a long time then," said the kid. Defiance raised little beads of glistening sweat on his upper lip. I thought again how like Fynn he was. Sparky and stubborn.
"I got plenty of time," I told him.
"Do you really think you'll get away with this?" asked Adam Cartwright.
I shrugged. "Everyone thinks you left town sometime last night or early this mornin'. Nobody's lookin' for you. Like I said, I got plenty of time." I fixed the kid with a cold smile. "You take all the time you need with your dyin', boy. As long as you want. Your brother is gonna be right here by your side the whole time, watchin' you go." I nodded at the biscuits and the water, addressin' myself to the older Cartwright. "You got any sense, you'll eat that yourself and not waste it on him. It'll speed up the process. Believe me, I know."
I turned to leave, reaching to extinguish the lamp on the way out.
"Let us have some light." This time, I was certain I heared an edge of fear in Adam Cartwright's plea. Reckon he thought I was about to refuse 'cos he flattened his voice and added, "I thought you wanted me to see him suffering."
I liked his reasonin' so I said I'd bring him another candle. I left the lamp burnin' while I went to fetch one. When I returned, he was bendin' over his brother, offerin' him the jug of water. 'Course, I'd known that's what he'd do, in spite of my advice. It's what I'da done too. What I did do. For all the good it did Fynn. Adam Cartwright shoulda listened to me.
The kid was weak. All that blood everywhere, I guess he woulda been. Adam Cartwright had to make a grab to save him from droppin' that jug. One hand on the pitcher, he lifted the other to the kid's hair, brushin' it back from his forehead, an' for a moment I was reminded of the priest who bent over my brother, an' the desperation in Fynn's eyes as the man pronounced his benediction. Saw the pleading in my brother's face when he looked back at me. That was the moment I knew my brother was going to die.
Reckon that day was longest of my whole life. I'd hoped I could catch up on the sleep I didn' get the night afore, but I couldn't settle. Didn't feel much like eatin' neither. Jus' drank too much deadshot and watched the flies buzzin' at the window, and tortured myself goin' over an' over those final days in the prison with Fynn. I even dragged out the iron box from under my bed and took out Fynn's things, one by one. I ain't done that in a coon's age. Ain't much to look at neither, not for the sum total of a whole life. Jes' the stuff he had on him the day of the stagecoach robbery. The day Adam Cartwright shot him. There's a fancy leather wallet I give him for his sixteenth birthday. Last birthday he ever saw. Nibbled it from a fireman in Virginia City durin' a ruckus atween Union and Confederate supporters. Knew Fynn would like it. Had ten dollars in it when I give it to him. The money ain't there now, of course. There's a pipe used to belong to my pa. Fynn allers said it was his good luck charm. Sure didn' bring him much. Never could figure why he reckoned anything as belonged to our pa would bring him good luck. Way I see it, my pa never brought nairn but bad luck to our family.
The las' thing in that box is a book. It's called The Red Rover. Pa had no time for books, but Ma knew some readin' and writin', in a small way, and Fynn learned the rest hisself. Tried to teach me too, but I couldn't see no point. My pa drank away every spare dime in our house so the kid got books mostly by stealin' 'em. But a feller in Carson City – a rich business feller in a smart suit - gave him this'un, after Fynn caught his runaway team and saved his rig from plungin' over the ravine. Fynn woulda done that kinda stunt jus' for the sheer hell of it, but he sure was puffed up when that feller give him that book. Used to carry it with him all the time. Read it over an' over,'til some of the pages plain wore out.
Too much whiskey and handlin' those things of Fynn's sorta choked me up, but I weren' about to surrender to no tears, like some green girl in a hookshop, so I took Fynn's book and went back to the cell. Shoulda stayed where I was. Knew afore I went in there that I was half corned an' likely to shoot my mouth off.
Adam Cartwright was hunched over his candle, but he got to his feet when I went in. The kid was asleep, under the blanket. The candlelight carved deep shadows in the hollows of Cartwright's face, hardened it, made him older.
"Fynn was real smart, ya know," I said, holding up the frayed book like it was proof of the fact. "He was smart enough he coulda done anythin'. He didn' need to rob stages. He was a smart kid."
Adam Cartwright lifted his head and fixed me with puzzled eyes, but he didn' say nothin'. I kinda wisht I hadn' spoke, but I wanted him to know jus' how special my brother had been; how much he'd destroyed when he shot him.
"This was his'n," I said, pushing on, steppin' closer to the bars of the cell so Adam Cartwright could see the book more clearly. "Had it on him the day you shot him."
Adam Cartwright's expression flickered, like somethin' I'd said had finally made the jack. When he still didn' speak, I kept on.
"He was jes' a kid, but he was real smart. He loved this book. It's about…"
"A pirate," said Adam Cartwright, taking me by surprise. He nodded. "I know. I've read it. It's a good story."
His interruption took the wind out of my sails. Jes' for a moment, I couldn't think what else I'd been about to say.
"Yeah," I finished, soundin' as lame as a three-legged horse. "Well, he was real smart. I jes' wanted you to know that."
Cartwright's dark stare probed me. For a moment, I thought I saw pity in his eyes. Dunno why he'd'a' been feelin' sorry for me though. I wa'n't the one dyin'.
"I already told you," he said, "I'm sorry about your brother. I had no way of knowing what was going to happen. But shooting my brother and holding us prisoner like this won't bring him back."
"You think I don't know that? You think I don't know nothin' ain't gonna bring him back now." I found myself starin' at the book in my hand an' cursin' the whiskey for turnin' my throat tight. "Ya know, Fynn allers fancied bein' a pirate. Used to tell him that's what we were. Pirates, with horses steada ships."
Adam Cartwright's eyes drilled right into me. Kinda unnerved me. Consid'rin' I was s'posed to have the bulge on him, I couldn' shake the feelin' he was more in control than I was.
"My pa was a sailor," he said.
I shouldn'a hesitated, but I did. "I ain't interested in your family history," I told him, though it weren't strictly the truth. I ain't never seen the ocean, but I've allers had a hankerin' to. Them big ships with all the sails, I'd love to see one of them for real. That was Fynn's dream too.
I knew Adam Cartwright would notice that pause. Shoulda guessed he try an' take advantage.
"Why don't you let me take the bullet out of Joe's leg?" he said. Had to admire the way he spoke to me like I was a reasonable man. "They took the bullet out of your brother."
"You got the wrong pig by the tail, feller." I thrust Fynn's book out of sight, inside my vest. "You mus' be mistakin' me for someone who cares. He might as well die with a bullet inside him as out. You wanna help him, do him a favour an' finish him off now. Save you both a whole lotta grief."
I don't know when the kid woke up. I hadn' been payin' much mind to him. I looked at him then an' his eyes, sunk in their sockets, were starin' at me. I could already see the touch of death in the pallor of his skin. That's what death does; it leeches the color outta life, turns it all to ash.
"You wanna drag it out, kid, or you wanna end it quick?"
The boy pulled hisself to a sitting position. That cost him, I could tell. Reckon he planned on answerin' me hisself, but Adam Cartwright got there first.
"You underestimate my brother. He doesn't give up that easily. Nor do I."
"My brother didn' give up easy neither." I hadn't meant to shout, it jes' came out that way. "He kept on fightin', right 'til the end. Ain't nobody tried harder to stay alive. Don't you ever think Fynn gave up easy!"
I woulda said more but I had to rattle my hocks outta there. There was way too much redeye runnin' in my veins. Dang that whiskey! Sometimes it makes a man as weepy as a grievin' widow.
Liquor was the ruin of my father and it'll likely be the death of me too. Pa never could drink jes' one or two glasses. He drank 'til the pot was dry, like it was matter of honor. Some nights, he wouldn' come home, then he'd roll in next day, roarin' an' cussin' an' demandin' my ma give him more whiskey. If she didn', he'd take his fist to her. Ma hated liquor but she allers tried to keep some in the house to avoid a lacing. Like as not, that final bottle would send him unconscious an' we'd all be spared. Not that Pa was a violent man by nature; it was the liquor boiled his blood. For a long time, I steered clear of whiskey 'cos I seed what it did to my pa. But after Fynn died, I needed a way to silence the ghosts, an' the deadshot did that.
I slept that night. I'd finally swallered so much liquor that my mind was numb. I didn' even dream. Only woke 'cos someone was bangin' on the door. I knew it was Nate from the way he knocked. I stayed where I was till I was sure he'd gone away again, then I heaved myself to my feet, my head as heavy as if I'd stuffed it full of musket shot.
There was a covered pot on the porch. Courtesy of Nate, a'course. That's what he does when I have my dark days. My "bad turns", he calls 'em. Comes by with food so's I put somethin' other than whiskey in my belly. Puts his mind at rest when he sees I've taken the pot inside. Guess he figures if I can do that, I'm still alive. It's not jes' the whiskey worries him. We never talk about it now, but I know he remembers the day he found me with the other bottle in my hand. I scared him that day. Thinkin' on it made me put my hand over the pocket of my vest. I've had that bottle ever since the day Fynn died. It ain't big but it sure weighs a lot. I don't dare put it down no more. Couldn' lay my hands on it one day and I was pitchin' a fit 'til I found it. Now I keep it right here, in my pocket, where it won't never get lost again. To remind myself. So I don't forget. No. That ain't true. Ain't no way I'll never forget! Never. I carry it 'cos…I must. Won't never drink it. That ain't the point. It's like them religious folks do. A penance. Though I cain't say I ain't been tempted, 'specially in them early days when I'd still hear Fynn screamin' in my dreams.
Adam Cartwright jumped to his feet again, the instant I opened the door to the cell. It was dark in there again. I'd only left him a stub of a candle. Musta burnt out hours afore. In the light from the doorway, I could see the sheen of sweat on his face. It was kinda close in that cave; the air sure didn' stir much. I heared the kid afore I seed him. Heared his breath, coming fast and' heavy.
"This has gone on long enough," said Adam Cartwright, his voice soundin' clipped an' tight. Didn' reckon he'd gotten much sleep neither. "Either shoot us or let us go."
The kid wan't makin' no pretence of tryin' to be feisty no more, nor could he keep the pain from distortin' his face. The night had changed him. His eyes were glazed, like a veil had come down over them. I knew all about that veil; the way it grew thicker and harder to penetrate; how eventually he'd become insensible to everything outside and know nothin' about nothin' no more, 'ceptin' his own misery. I imagined Adam Cartwright tryin' to comfort him through the long hours of darkness. Didn' take much imaginin'. I been there. I know what that's like. Death creeping closer, like a shadow growing longer as the daylight slips away.
I shook my head. "I already told you, Cartwright, you're here to watch him die. Jus' like I watched my brother die. I want you to know what it feels like."
"Then what?" He was bitin' back his frustration. I could see that real clear. "You'll kill me too? So, what's the point?"
Forcing a smile to my face wasn' easy in that stinkin' hole, but I did it anyway. "I reckon I'll let you live, Cartwright. Let you know what it feels like to carry the memories with you for the rest of your life. Let you wonder, forever, if there was somethin' more you coulda done to ease his dyin'."
Muscles twitched in Adam Cartwright's jaw. His eyes flashed through the gloom. "If my brother dies here, and I live, I swear I won't rest until you are brought to justice!"
Had to admire the way the man allers tried to take the upper hand, even though I held all the cards.
"You won't find me, Cartwright. I'll make dead sure of that." I gestured with the bowl of stew in my hand. "Brung you some grub." I put it down on the floor, next to the space in the bars where the trays passed back 'n' forth. Then I leaned back 'gainst the doorframe and watched.
Cartwright's eyes flashed me a challenge an' I knew we were readin' each other's minds. The man had to be hungry. A coupla stale biscuits in three days ain't enough to fill a feller's belly, and Nate's stew smelled real good. Leastways, to a man who's insides wa'n't swilling with rotgut.
When Cartwright realised I wa'n't goin' nowhere, he bent down and retrieved the food. Then he crossed to his brother. The kid was watchin' him, but his eyes were hazy, like they was really lookin' someplace else. Adam Cartwright said, "Joe?" and the kid shook his head once an' turned his face away.
"Try and eat something."
The kid muttered another refusal, but his brother wasn't about to give up that easily. "A couple of mouthfuls, that's all."
The kid shook his head again, and I laughed. A harsh, ugly sound.
"He knows, Cartwright. He knows there ain't no sense in wasting food on a dead man. Why don't you listen to him?"
The kid dragged his gaze back to me, blinkin' like he was tryin' to clear his vision. He forced himself to sit up straighter and I saw that defiant jut of his chin I'd noticed afore. Had to admire his determination. Jus' in that moment, I could see the family resemblance atween 'em. But I'd done a real good job with that bullet. Jes' moving caused the kid e'en a'most to swoon away. Still, he opened his mouth to oblige his brother an' eat the food spooned into him, but he couldn't swallow it.
"You're wastin' your time," I said again, as the kid made a funny sound, and gagged.
Finally, Adam Cartwright's composure wavered. His head snapped round, his eyes flared.
"He's my brother! I'm not going to sit here and watch him die, whatever you say. Don't tell me you didn't do everything in your power to help your brother!"
A sharp pain caught me right about in my middle. "'Course I tried." I looked back at the kid, creased in a bout of agony, and for a split second I saw Fynn again. That grimace on his face, that catch in his breath, that half suppressed moan of pain somewhere atween a sob and a curse, I knew them well. Too well. Could feel 'em twisting in my gut as I watched him. Every fragment of the boy's anguish was already lodged somewhere deep inside o' me. Try as I might, I could not keep the gall outta my voice.
"I allers looked after my brother. 'Course I did! He was jes' a kid. Damn you, Cartwright! I looked after him right from the time he could walk. I had to. There weren't nobody else. If I coulda taken that bullet 'steada him, I would've. Don't you never suggest I didn' look after my brother!"
Adam Cartwright pressed his fingers close to his forehead an' took a deep breath. When he raised his face again, he was back under control.
"I wasn't suggesting that. I'm sure you did everything you could. And I'm going to do the same for my brother." His gaze travelled back to the kid. Joe Cartwright's eyes were closed though he weren't asleep. Pain flexed his body and strung his face taut. "It'd break my father's heart to lose him."
"What about your mother?"
Cartwright paused. "His mother's dead."
I was intrigued, in spite of myself.
"What d'you mean, his mother? Your brothers, ain't you?"
"My father had three wives. They're all dead."
All dead. Jes' for a moment, I was distracted by another man's ill fortune. Sometimes I forget there's other folks who've rubbed shoulders with death a'most as often as me. Seemed like old man Cartwright was one of 'em.
"What was your ma like?"
Adam Cartwright gave me a sharp look, like he was trying to decide why I was askin', but he answered all the same.
"I never knew her. She died when I was a baby."
I jerked my head towards the boy. "An' his ma?"
"I knew her." Cartwright's voice held that familiar note of caution. Reckon he thought I was tryin' to trap him. "Joe was only four when she died."
My heart jumped. I tried to keep my surprise from showin' on my face. Same age as Fynn when our ma died. Won't never forget that day. The carnival came to town. Fynn begged to go. Ma said I could take him. She was too sick to come with us. She made us put on our clean shirts and tied our colored kerchiefs around our necks with her white, tremblin' fingers. Our gay apparel she called it. Said she wanted to be proud of us.
We had us a real hog-killin' time that day, me 'n' Fynn. He was so tired on the way home, he fell asleep in the saddle, slumped 'gainst me. Then, when we got back, Ma was dead. Jus' like that. The life all gone out of her. All that happiness snuffed out in an instant.
I looked at Joe an' wondered what he'd been doing the day his ma died.
"What she die of?"
"A riding accident."
I turned away. A riding accident ain't the same as months of sufferin'. Those Cartwright boys never watched death turn their ma into a ghost, even afore it finally snatched her away. The ol' familiar sense of loathing rose again inside me. Everythin' about those Cartwright boys spoke of wealth. Not jus' their fine trappin's, but their swagger. Folks with money don't have to bow to no one. More than anythin', I wanted to see Adam Cartwright lose his poise, strip away his precious self-possession. Watch him beg. Like I did.
I lay on my bed while the day pressed hot an' close about me, like a draggin' blanket, an' I tried to imagine Joe Cartwright slippin' deathwards an' Adam Cartwright crumblin' under his brother's anguish. He was tough, sure, but it would come, I knew. In the end. I'd make sure it did.
I waited till the sun slipped behind the mountain afore I put Nate's empty pot back out on the porch. Right overhead, a star shone down; the brightest star in the whole night sky.
"That you, Fynn?" I said, but my brother was silent.
"He's sufferin'," I told Fynn. "I'll make sure he pays, I swear it."
My right hand followed its old habit and touched the small bottle in my vest pocket. I drew it out, its familiar shape almost comfortin', even though I knew what it contained. It wouldn' take much, I knew. Won't say I ain't been tempted plenty of times since Fynn died, but the time ain't never been right. I owe Fynn and I cain't duck out till I paid my debt.
No, it wouldn' take much. As little as a thimble full would be enough, even for a full grown man. It's powerful strong. That's all it would take.
I looked back up at the star, then at the door behind me, and I put the bottle back into my pocket. I knew what I had to do.
I'd figured I was on a sure footing, but, truth was, I was havin' doubts. Serious doubts. Seemed to me I shoulda been feelin' real good with everythin' workin' jus' the way I'd reckoned it would. So why was I so balled-up inside? Adam Cartwright had ruined my life an' all I was doin' was dealin' out the justice Fynn shoulda had. Some fools think justice is jes' for the Almighty, but seems to me the Almighty ain't that bothered with most of us ord'nary folk. Didn' do nothin' when Fynn was screamin' with pain. An' I sure was prayin' then! I prayed over an' over, an' there weren't no one answered. I've heared them preachers hark on about heaven and hell, but I ain't so sure. Seems to me all them good folks ain't never gonna enjoy heaven whilst their kinsfolk's burnin' up in the other place. An' if you cain't enjoy heaven…well, it ain't heaven then, is it?
Ain't nothin' after this life but silence. That's what I reckon. Death's the silent land. I sure as heck ain't gonna fit right amongst all them do-goodin' angels, an' I don't fancy burnin' in hell for the rest of eternity, so I guess I'm jes' hopin' for the silence. No more ghosts yammerin' in my ears. That would be enough.
I had another bad night. Kinda resigned to it, by then. Sleep was startin' to feel irrelevant. I jes' lay there in the dark, thinkin' about the two men in my cells an' feelin' the familiar chawin' in my gut. It had all seemed so right at the time, but now, I couldn' help wonderin'. What if the kid didn't buck out? What if he took weeks to die? Could I remain locked behind my door all that time, while the rest of the world carried on jus' like everythin' was normal? Nate leaving me pots of stew. Mr Wallis sweeping dirt from his porch into a dustpan. One-eyed Jake taking his afternoon nap in the sun. Lyle's cat preening hisself on the step outside his store. All carryin' on around me, while I waited for a sorry kid to die in the darkness, and Adam Cartwright to crawl at my feet. How long before that stubborn man crumbled?
I'd reckoned there'd be satisfaction, not this gut-wrenching fear eatin' away at me. Truth is, I was afeared. Afeared of what I'd done. Afeared I didn' have the belly to see it through. Afeared of how messy it was all becomin'. But, underneath it all, mostly I was scared that Adam Cartwright was a stronger man than I was. Somehow, I had to find my courage, an' the only place I knew where to look for that was inside a bottle. Seemed to me, I could hear Fynn clearer, too, with a few glasses of the deadshot inside me.
It was mid mornin' afore I forced myself back to that cell room, leavin' the door open behind me to let in the light. Took a moment for my eyes to 'custom themselves to the dinginess, but I could already hear the kid's pantin' breath an' his half-stifled moans. Adam Cartwright was propped against the back wall, by the cot. This time, he didn' get to his feet when I came in. I took that as a promisin' sign. Maybe luck was gonna be on my side, after all.
I'd brought fresh water. I put it down and stayed close to the bars, so's I could get a better look at how the kid was progressin'.
"Don't look too good, does he, your brother?"
Adam Cartwright turned his face to me, and I experienced a queer mix of shock an' elation as I seed the gnawing shadows that had hollered his face and drawn his mouth into a hard, tight line. His sunken eyes were black as coal in the half-darkness, and behind them, somethin' flickered. Somethin' desperate an' half wild. The night had been real bad for him too. I could see it. It had left its mark in Adam Cartwright's eyes.
The kid arched and twisted on the bed and his moans rose to a skeersome wail, shot through with a breathless oath, as he called his brother's name. Adam Cartwright reached out and pressed the flailin' head back into the cot. "Easy, Joe," he said. His voice was raspy with weariness, an' I wondered how many times he had muttered those words in the long, dark night.
"He sure is hurtin'," I said.
Cartwright, his hand still on his brother's head, turned his accusin' gaze in my direction.
He couldn't'a known jus' how much I wanted to, but I weren't gonna let Adam Carwright cow me down no more with his high 'n' mighty manner. I stood my ground.
"So, your pa," I said, like I was making friendly conversation, "did you tell him you'd take care of the kid? Promise you'd look after him?"
Adam Cartwright turned his face away, as if I disgusted him.
"And do you feel bad now, Cartwright? Bad because you let 'em down? Your pa? Your brother?"
The boy cried out again, all his bravado eaten away by the pain of the bullet festerin' inside him. Shiverin' too, despite the sweat stickin' his shirt to his body. Adam Cartwright steadied him, mutterin', "Easy," again. Then his gaze flicked back to me, an' it was like the same cold fire that had put his brother in a chilled sweat was in his eyes.
"This is what you wanted. Aren't you satisfied yet?"
My right knee started to quiver. I forced myself to look unconcerned. "Oh no," I told him. "Not yet." I nodded at the gaspin' kid. "Reckon there's at least another day left in him. Maybe more. Like you said, he's tough."
The kid heard what I said. His fevered gaze grew desperate. Adam Cartwright saw it too.
"You're going to be all right, Joe." I could hear in his voice how dragged out he really was. "You're going to get through this."
The kid met my gaze with eyes strugglin' to stay focused. I shook my head at him, but he didn' need me to tell him. He already knew. Could see it in his face. He tried to move, to sit up, like he wanted to prove somethin'. Fool kid.
His tortured wail turned my insides right over. Adam Cartwright grabbed the kid's shoulders, tried to hold onto him while his body bucked like a dyin' rabbit. I coulda told him. Coulda told Adam Cartwright, it don't matter how strong your arms are, you can't hold back death. The kid writhed an' cried out for relief, an' each scream shredded my nerves, like the Devil himself was trying to carve his way into my soul.
I'd taken two steps back from the bars. Didn' even know I'd done it. Inside the cell, the boy's screams shattered the gloom an' Adam Cartwright battled in vain to ease his brother's anguish.
"Help him!" Cartwright's voice cracked under the strain. "For pity's sake, help him!"
Wasn't this what I'd wanted? Adam Cartwright pleading for mercy? Wasn't that why I'd done all this in the first place?
I shook my head. "Pity? I don't know nothin' 'bout pity! He's your brother. You help him."
I heard the deep breath Adam Cartwright took then. He dropped his head, but not before I'd seen how his face contorted with helpless frustration. If he coulda reached me right then, sure as a gun, he'd a killed me.
The boy slumped an' fell silent. Not dead though. Not yet. I could still hear him gaspin'. Adam Cartwright rested his forehead on the laborin' chest. It was the closest I seed him get to breakin'.
I had to force my muscles to relax enough to reach inside my vest.
"Here," I said, louder than I'd meant.
Cartwright looked at me, looked at the little bottle in my hand.
"You wanted help. Here it is. A coupla swallers of this and he won't be in pain no more."
I put the bottle down next to the water jug an' walked out the door. That was as far as I got. Jes' outside, I leaned my back 'gainst the wall and slid down till I was sittin' on the floor. My stemps were shakin' so much I couldn'ta stayed upright no longer. Beside me, the door was still open but I couldn' hear nothin'. Nothin' but the thumpin' of my own blood.
"Fynn," I whispered, but Fynn was dead. Died choking in my arms. He couldn't hear me no more. Couldn't hear me say sorry, even though I said it over and over again.
Damn you, Cartwright! Damn you to hell! I closed my eyes and tried not to hear the moans of the dyin' kid in the room behind me. Shut him up, Cartwright. Give him the stuff and make him quiet.
What the hell was I doing? How the devil was I going to end this? I hearn Fynn's voice laughin', sayin, "Hey, Si, seems like you bit off a mite more'n you could chew?"
"It's your fault," I told him. "I did it for you."
But Fynn wa'n't listenin'. Jus' laughin'. Crazy kid. Damn you, Fynn! Why d'you never listen to me? Why'd you ride out that day, irons a-blazin'? I told you to stay in the rocks, didn' I? I told you! You never paid no heed. You always knowed best. Damn you, boy!
I had a good life in Redditch. Ain't nothin' special, but I got friends here. Nate an' Mr Wallis, Lil an' One-eyed Jake. But there ain't no turnin' back the clock. Why'd I listen to Fynn? Why'd I always listen to Fynn?
My ma used to say, "The Devil sweetens poison with honey." Well, I'd sure been fooled. When Adam Cartwright rode into Redditch, all I smelled was honey. Shoulda known fortune weren't never gonna do a feller like me no favors.
I gritted my teeth an' hissed into the empty air. "Shut him up, Cartwright, shut him up!" But the kid jus' kept on mutterin' and cryin' out. I remembered holdin' the bottle to Fynn's mouth, seein' in his eyes that he knew. He tried to fight me off with his useless stump of an arm an' I told him it would be awright' jus' like I heared Cartwright tell his brother. I lied, jes' like Cartwright was lyin'. I shook my head, tryin' to dislodge the memories, pressed my hands over my ears so's I wouldn' hear the Cartwright kid's pain, but I couldn't shut 'em out. Seemed like they were inside my head as much as out.
"Damn it, Cartwright! Shut him up! Shut him up!" Without hardly knowin' I'd done it, I was back on my feet, at the cell door.
Adam Cartwright was standin' close to the bars. The bottle was in one of his hands, stopper in the other. I took a deep breath, tryin' to steady my janglin' nerves. I couldn't read his face, the shadows were too deep, but, even through the stinkin' gloom, I could sense his eyes borin' into that bottle.
"So that's what this is all about." He spoke low, but the words resonated through the darkness all the same.
Cold claws prickled 'gainst my skin. "Don't pretend to understand me, Cartwright."
He cast a puzzled look in my direction. "I thought that's why I was here. Why you shot my brother. So that I would understand you. Wasn't that your plan?"
"Yeah, well you don't!" I fought to keep the tremblin' outta my voice. "How could you? You're rich. You ain't never had to struggle. You allers had it easy. What d'you know 'bout what I been through?"
I wisht he wouldn' stare like that. Like he could see right through me. Made my belly squirm. Behind him, the kid called out again.
"Is that what you think?" Adam Cartwright gave a slow shake of his head.
I thought of the dead mothers and shrugged them aside. This wa'n't no time to be feelin' sorry for Adam Cartwright.
"Let's quit beatin' the Devil 'round the stump," I said. "You wanna end this now or drag it out?" I nodded at the miserable kid on the cot. "You wanna watch him keep on sufferin' or give him peace?"
Cartwright's eyes were still drillin' right through me. "You mean, do I want to kill my brother? Like you killed yours?"
My stomach twisted into a hard knot that seemed to push its way right up into my chest, so's I could hardly breathe. "I didn' kill him. He was dyin' anyways. I jes' helped take the pain away."
Cartwright's gaze dropped back to the bottle in his hand. "You gave him hemlock. You fed him poison and it killed him."
"No!" The denial broke from my throat on a gasp, like I'd been runnin' hard. Inside my chest, my heart was racin' fit to bust. "No, you killed my brother, Cartwright. You shot him! You sent him to that stinkin' hole! That's what killed him!"
"What was he even doing there?" Cartwright raised his head again. "The day of the stagecoach robbery. What was he doing there? He was just a boy."
"He shoulda stayed in the rocks. I told him to stay in the rocks." I couldn' stop myself babbling, like a scared kid desperate to avoid a lacin'.
Adam Cartwright was frowning. He shook his head. "There was nothing else I could have done."
Wisht I could've sounded as sure of myself as Adam Cartwright did. He kep' speakin' in that measured way of his.
"I didn't know how young he was, but it wouldn't have made any difference if I had. A bullet's a bullet; doesn't matter who fires it. There were women to think about. A little girl. I'm sorry he's dead. But I didn't kill him." His eyes flicked to the bed where the kid was breathin' in ragged gasps. "And Joe doesn't deserve this punishment. Do you really believe killing my brother is going to make you feel better about killing yours?"
"I didn' kill my brother, I already told you!"
"You gave him poison. And now you want me to do the same to my brother because you believe that, somehow, that will vindicate what you did. Well, it won't. It won't change anything. You won't shake off your guilt that easily."
"You cain't say that! You don't know. I ain't guilty. I didn' kill Fynn. I jes' stopped him hurtin'."
I blinked sweat outta my eye and scrubbed at my face with my arm. Trails of perspiration trickled down my temples. I'd thought the hemlock would be a mercy for Fynn. Compared to the agony of his festerin' stump. Figured it would take the pain away, ease him into that other place. But it didn't. Made him twitch and jerk instead, like a dyin' rabbit; retchin' an' chokin' jus' as if I was stranglin' him. I tried to lift him up, help him get some air in his lungs, but he couldn' breathe. Couldn' speak. I watched his eyes grow wide and starin', an' his face swell violet with darkening blood. After that, he stopped fightin'.
I fed my brother poison an' I watched him choke to death.
When I tried to speak, I couldn' hardly breathe neither. "Jus' do it, Cartwright. Do it an' bring an end to this."
His eyes narrowed. The line of his mouth drew hard.
"No." The word fell heavy atween us. He let it hang there for several seconds, like a judgement. "My brother doesn't give up, and while he has breath in his body, I'll help him keep fighting for his life."
He raised his arm and I watched as he tipped the bottle. Watched the liquid hit the dirt floor. There wa'n't much there. It don't take much. But the musty odour jabbed straight into my memory and I see'd Fynn's face again, his eyes pleadin', his open mouth gaggin' for air.
"Damn you, Adam Cartwright!" I spat the words as I backed away from the door and slammed it shut.
Back in my own room, I pulled open the drawer of the table and I drew out my gun. So Cartwright wanted to suffer? Well, I'd make him suffer. I'd make him suffer real good!
I stood there for several minutes, jes' starin' at that gun, feelin' its weight in my hand. Adam Cartwright was my pris'ner. I was the one callin' the shots. I'd make him remember that. I'd make him sweat.
"So, Cartwright," I said to the empty room, "you wanna drag this out." I even smiled to myself as I emptied the chambers. All 'cept one. One lone whistler.
He was yellin' my name. I hearn his shouts through the solid door. I'd figured nothing could break through that poker-faced exterior of Adam Cartwright's, but there weren't no disguisin' the desperation in his voice. Adam Cartwright was afeared. I was back in control an' that felt good.
I opened the door. "What you tearin' up Jake about?"
He was pressed up 'gainst the bars, grippin' the iron with clenched fists. His knuckles were white in the light from the door. He was in a bad way. His shoulders hunched, an' atween the black smudge of his beard and the dark hollows of his eyes, his skin was clammy, like a bar of wet soapu, axxterior of hisn,, . Big patches of sweat stained his filthy shirt.
How are the mighty fallen, Adam Cartwright. How are they fallen!
He tightened his jaw. "You could at least let us have some light,"
I grinned. "Hero like you, 'feared of the dark?"
I'd figured he'd give me some smart reply in return for the dig, but instead, he let go of the bars and his hands sagged at his sides.
"Please," he said, like a kid rememberin' his manners.
His desperation took the wind outta my sails. His eyes dropped to the gun I was holdin', but he didn' say nothin'.
I shrugged and reached for the lantern, settin' the gun on the shelf. Cartwright's gaze followed it, then came back to my face. He was doin' it again: weighin' me up. Well, this time, I wa'n't givin' nothin' away neither.
I took my time with the lamp. When it was lit an' back on its hook, I picked up the gun again, lettin' it hang loose in my hand.
"It's not too late to work this out," he said. "I know you think I've wronged you, but we can still come to some arrangement."
I allowed myself to smile. "We already have."
"Think, McIlroy. You kill me or Joe, they're going to hang you. Is it worth it? You served out your time. Your slate was clean. Why spoil it? It's not too late yet. Let me get Joe to a doctor. I'll put in a word for you. We can still sort out this mess."
I wanted to laugh when he said that. Sort out the mess? My whole life was a mess. Always was. One mistake after another. I shook my head.
He wa'n't about to give up that easy. "They'll be looking for us. My pa and my brother. They'll have missed us by now. They'll track us this far. They will find us, you can be sure of that."
Funny. Until he said that, I'd forgotten Cartwright had another brother. I remembered him now. At the trial. Big feller. Built like a dray horse. Seemed like Adam Cartwright was a luckier man than me every angle I looked. Maybe things woulda been different for me if we hadn' had to bury that baby. Dang, but he'd been small!
I spat a bad taste from my mouth and' looked back at Cartwright. "So, they track you this far." I lifted my shoulders in a careless shrug. "Won't take much of a sleuth to do that. But they ain't gonna find you. Ain't no one in this town knows 'bout me. 'Bout what I done. Ain't no one gonna point them in this direction. No, Cartwright. They'll find your horses wanderin' miles from here, and they'll figure you got bushwhacked out in them mountains. That's what's gonna happen. In fact," I spat again, "I might jus' give 'em a friendly wave as they ride on by."
He turned away from me, lifting his hand to his forehead like I'd seed him do before. The kid on the bed muttered his name, an' he lowered hisself to his haunches, close to his brother's head.
"Little Joe? How you doing?"
The kid groaned. "Pa," he said, the word passing through his lips like a sigh.
"Yeah," said his brother, givin' the kid's arm a squeeze. "Pa'll find us. And Hoss. They'll be here soon. You just hang on, you hear?"
The kid shuddered. Adam Cartwright picked up the cup next to the bed and raised the boy's head so's he could drink. Somethin' 'bout the gesture an' the closeness atwixt 'em stuck in my gullet, like a lump of hard bread.
"Guess you were right," I told him, injectin' a sneer into my words. "Your brother sure is tough. He don't give up easy. But you ain't bein' fair on him, givin' him false hope." I took a step closer to the bars. "Hey, Joe!"
The kid was half insensible. I tried again, louder. "Joe! I'm talkin' to you, kid."
He turned his head in my direction, struggling to focus through the haze of his fever. Sweat trembled on his face. "What's it like, Joe? Dyin'? Tell your brother what it feels like."
The kid's forehead wrinkled into a frown. I stepped closer so's he could see me clearer.
Cartwright set the cup back down and straightened up. "Leave him alone."
I ignored him."You can end this, kid. All you gotta do is quit strugglin'. Let go, an' it'll all be over. It's that easy."
Cartwright stepped up to the bars. His back had snapped straight again. Anger burnt fierce in his hollow eyes. "If he dies, this won't be over, not by a long way. Not for you."
It was an empty threat. After all, Adam Cartwright wa'n't goin' nowhere. I was the one with the gun. I was the one on the right side of the bars. Didn' matter how much posturin' Cartwright did, he was as powerless as a caged mountain lion. Why'd it strike me then, as he said it, that he was right? If the kid died, how would it be over? Fynn would still be dead an' the pain he'd left behind - inside of me - that would still be there. Dyin' don't end the sufferin'. Not for the livin'. Even when you're wishin' for it, day in, day out. Like with my pa, when I was a kid. I'd lie in bed at night an' pray he wouldn' come home. Pray his horse'd throw him, or his heart'd give out, or some speeler'd put a bullet through him an' end it. Jus' so's he wouldn' come home and beat the daylights outta my ma.
After she died, Pa's temper grew a whole heap worse. When he'd been drinkin', he was savage as a meat axe. He'd lam us soon as look at us. Fynn an' me took to hidin' when we hearn him comin' back from town. I'd try an' make sure it was me 'steada Fynn took the knocks, but it got so's we lived in terror. So I prayed. I begged God to let my pa die. An' if he couldn' do that, to let me grow up fast. Make me as big as my pa, so he couldn' hit me no more.
Reckon the A'mighty heared me. Answered both prayers, jes' about on the same day. Pa came home one afternoon, roily with drink an' ready to raise sand. I was fifteen. This time, when he hit me, I hit him back.
I'd grown tall, but I didn' have my pa's strength. He picked me up like I weighed no more'n a sack of wool, an' slammed me 'gainst the wall, once, twice, three times, till I didn't know up from down no more. Hammered me with his fist too. Reckon he woulda killed me if it hadn' been for Fynn. Fynn was five years old, barely waist high to my pa, but he picked up the poker and swung it at Pa's head. Pa let go of me, an' Fynn an' me headed outta there real smart.
We holed up in a cave on the mountain. Fynn's special hidin' place. I was in a bad way. Couldn' keep nothin' down for two whole days. Couldn' see straight neither. Fynn brung me water an' made a fire, an' curled up aside me to keep me warm at night. When I could walk again, we went back home. Fynn didn' wanna go, but I told him we wouldn' be stayin'. We'd make good an' sure the coast was clear, an' we'd grab our plunder an' we'd leave. I was old enough to find work someplace a long ways away. I'd look after him. I promised him that.
All was quiet at our cabin. Seemed like we was in luck and Pa was back in town. Like as not, starin' down the neck of a whiskey bottle again. But this time, we didn' care. This time, we was leavin'.
A thick cloud of blowflies rose in the air as I pushed open the door. Pa was stretched out on the cabin floor. The poker was still there, lyin' where it'd fallen. Reckon he musta died pretty much right after Fynn hit him. His body'd started to bloat up. The stink made us gag.
We left him there. Lit out Hell for Hades. Never went back. My prayers had been answered a'right. Fixed my pa's flint real good. But I felt sick as a dog for weeks. Death can cheat you just as sure as life can.
Cartwright was still glarin' at me. I met his stare. "You been praying he'll die?"
I swear he paled when I asked him that. Tried to make out he didn' understand the question.
"What are you talking about?"
"The truth, Cartwright. Have you prayed for him to die?"
At first he didn't answer, although I caught the little twitch jus' under the skin of his face. I could a'most see the anger swelling up inside of him. "Get out of here!" he hissed, as if he was spittin' venom from his mouth.
I stood my ground, held his gaze.
"I prayed Fynn would die. When things got real bad. When he couldn't bear it no more. Weren't nothin' else I could do, so I prayed."
He didn' say nothin'. We stood starin' at each other, like we was both waitin' for somethin'.
"Prayed my father would die too."
When the silence had stretched out long as the shadows on the walls, he finally spoke. "And?"
I shrugged. Drew a deep breath. "And…he died. They all died. My ma. My pa. The baby. Fynn."
For a few moments, it was so quiet in that cell, the hiss of the lantern sounded like a roarin' in my head. Then Cartwright slumped again on a sigh. He pressed his fingers to his forehead, and the anger ebbed outta his voice. He sounded…defeated.
Didn' matter how much he pretended. I knew the truth. The man had reached the bottom. Adam Cartwright knew what it was to want death for his brother. The evidence was there, in the slump of his shoulders, the defeat in his voice, an' the anger that was really denial. Couldn't blame him. The cell stunk. I'd left him in the dark with nothin' but blood an' filth an' the constant torment of his brother's anguish and his own inability to help. What man wouldn't consider every option? In the end, death's all that remains. Adam Cartwright was no hero, after all. He was jes' a man. As weak an' as wretched as I'd once been.
But I weren't weak no more. I'd brought Adam Cartwright down, made him see what it was to crawl at the feet of despair. An' I was still in charge.
I'd a'most forgotten about the gun. I closed my fingers round its solid weight and held it up so's he could see it clearly.
"There's one bullet in this gun, Cartwright. Jes' one. Who's it gonna be? I swiveled it to point at him. "You?" I swung it to the left, to the boy on the cot. "Or him?"
His jaw went tight, his shoulders stiffened.
"No more games," he said. "If you want to shoot me, go right ahead and do it."
There he was, givin' the orders again, but this time I weren't gonna be no cat's paw. I was the one with the gun, remember. I waved it at him, to make the point.
"You got it all wrong. I don't wanna shoot you. I want you to stay alive. Live with the memory of this hole. Wake up sweatin' ev'ry night, with the stink of death in your nose," I nodded at the prone kid, "an' his voice in your ears, cryin' out, beggin' you for help. That's what I want for you, Cartwright. Ev'ry night and ev'ry day for the rest of your life. See, I'm gonna be out of here soon. An' when they start wonderin', there's folks gonna come lookin' for me. Tomorrow, maybe. Or the next day. They'll find you. You can be reunited with your Pa an' that other brother of yourn. Them that's out there lookin' for you. If you're still alive."
The kid had opened his eyes, was watching me, dazed an' unclear. Face like a ghost. Jes' about dead already. I'd be doin' him a favor. I leveled the gun, pulled back the hammer. "Makes sense. Makes real good sense."
I hearn Adam Cartwright's shout as I squeezed the trigger, saw him dive at the cot. The kid cried out in protest. Cartwright's arms had locked themselves around his brother before he registered the hollow click, realized there was no bullet. He looked round at me with a face as white as the kid's.
I started to laugh. Somewhere close by, I hearn someone else laughing. I looked behind me, but couldn' see him. Jes' heared him laughin'. Fynn? You there?
"You want to shoot someone, you shoot me." Cartwright spoke over his shoulder, defiant, his arms still round the boy.
"Always the hero, ain't you?"
He gave me a hard look. "No," he said. No. That was all.
"He'll likely be dead by the time they find you. You think it's worth sacrificing yourself for a dead man?"
"He's my brother."
Our eyes locked, his stare unyieldin' as granite. In spite of the gun in my hand, I could feel myself startin' to buckle under the challenge of his silence. I swallowed hard.
"I'd'a died for Fynn," I said, an' I heared Fynn laugh again.
He gave a single nod. "I know."
"I ain't afeared of dyin'."
His gaze didn' flinch, jus' the little muscles in his cheek.
"Jes'…no one gave me the choice."
In front of me, the hand holdin' the gun trembled. I knew he'd seen. Adam Cartwright saw everthin'. I was the strong one, right? I was the one with the gun. So why was I tremblin'? Why was I the one achin' inside? I'd held my brother, jes' like that. Tried to give him strength. Tried to make him hold on. Only difference was, I didn' have the strength to give. Adam Cartwright was strong and I was…a coward. I'd let my brother down. I'd promised him I'd take care of him an' I'd let him down.
Don't laugh at me, Fynn! Don't laugh at me!
Damn my hand! I couldn' keep it from shakin' any more'n I could stop the sweat startin' to prickle the back of my neck. Thing was, I knew the truth now. I could see where it'd all gone wrong. Could see where my plan had failed. The truth hit me like a smack in the face. It wa'n't Adam Cartwright I'd hated all these years. An' if I shot the whole darn Cartwright clan, it wouldn' make no difference. I'd still be a coward an' Fynn would still be dead.
Damn you, Fynn! Why d'you do it? Why d'you always have to take chances? Why d'you burst outta those rocks with that gun in your hand? Why d'you throw your life away? Why did you have to die, you fool, crazy, brash, kid?
I'da died 'steada you Fynn. If I could. You gotta believe that, brother. Woulda been easier than watchin' you die. Dammit, I ain't afeared of dyin'! It's livin' as scares me.
Fynn's voice in my ear says, "We know all 'bout dyin', don't we, Si?"
The gun's quiverin' in my hand. I put out my other hand to steady it and I shake the perspiration outta my eyes.
"I ain't afeared of dyin'," I say again. "I know all 'bout dyin'."
Cartwright's eyes flick behind me. I wonder if he can see my brother too. Then he looks at the gun, an' back at me. His eyes are steady. He ain't afeared neither. Maybe he knows what's on the other side too. The big jump. The promised land.
"They'll find you," I tell him again. "Today or tomorrow. I'll be long gone."
My hands ain't shakin' no more. I see his eyes follow me as I raise the gun.
The barrel's cool 'gainst my skin. Fynn's still laughin'. I close my eyes. I squeeze the trigger. And I pray.
Please God, let there be silence.