Published on Monday, May 10, 2010
The Indecent Alcove
A Story of Murder and the Outlaw Psyche
By C. R. Joolsberg
|I walked to the bar slowly and could feel all their eyes on me. I ordered whiskey in a wineglass and when the little bald guy behind the bar stared at me I produced the reward poster with my face on it. I rolled the sheet back up and put it away while he poured my drink. I downed it and got another. I downed that and he asked me if I wanted the bottle. I told him no, that he||
I was swishing the wine around in my mouth like my aunt Bessie taught me to do way back when down in N'Orleans. She said I had to guess all the flavors that were in the wine and I told her I thought that was the stupidest thing I ever heard. We laughed about it then but I could sort of tell that hurt her feelings because she thought it was the only thing she was good at in this world, was tasting wine. But now that she's dead and gone not a glass of wine goes by wherein I don't taste something new. I guess it's something that comes with practice. And I guess that's what I do in my life, I practice things by just doing 'em to get 'em done, and when I do them enough I get good at 'em. For instance, I don't believe in wasting bullets.
I believe if you're gonna shoot off a gun, you should do it to hit something. I guess that's why I got this wanted poster to show to hesitant barmen. I
'd drunk about half of the wine and I started to think I was having a good time and that this trip to the saloon might've been worth it. Turned out I got myself proved dead wrong, as is how it always goes, when a real dusty, real friendly cowpoke sidled up next to me and started talkin'.
Now, I don't mind dusty. But I sure as hell hate friendly.
He started off with kind of a winding, wheezing 'heey there, stranger...' and I looked into his eyes. Blue, but not a good blue. Not even a cut-into-your-soul icy death blue like them wolves up in the Yukon. His eyes were a green blue, and I didn't like him from the start. He had a real chiseled face and I guess one could call him handsome. He stood tall and his clothes fit well, but like I said I didn't like him. He leaned on the counter with his forearms when he realized I wasn't much for the words and he started making observations at me about his life on the ranch. I knew what he wanted but I didn't know quite for sure if he knew who I was. Whatever he was thinking he was sure as hell doin' a lot of talkin' about himself. Said things to the effect of:
Real cowboy doesn't just rustle cows, he rustles his soul.'
'Real cowboy's hard to find these days.'
'Real cowboy don't run from the law, he lays it down himself.'
'Real cowboy's honest.'
'Real cowboy's tough.'
'Real cowboy's smart.'
When I'd had enough I cleared my throat after I set my wineglass down real soft on the counter. I looked in his eyes and he looked in mine and he smiled, and he was just about to start talkin' and givin' me his proposition, I guarantee it. Only I didn't want no proposition. And anything I did want I wasn't about to get from him. Anything anybody wanted they weren't about to get from him real soon.
Before even I knew it I went for my hip. I was aiming the little somethin' that wasn't s'posed to cause no trouble right in the middle of his chest.
'Yeah,' I said, 'real cowboy's real damn smart.'
I brought my little somethin' up to his face.
Shot him right between, as the fella's so fond of saying, those blue green eyes of his.
I walked out of the place real cool and collected and I got right up on my horse and started ridin' but soon enough I squeezed him in the sides a little so he'd go from a trot to a pace or a lope or a stride or whatever the hell they call the way a horse goes from a walk to a run. I never learned the real traditional way of riding. I just got set up on top of a horse with my mama looking at me cryin' telling me to look after my little brother while the fire blazed behind her. It's a good thing she never told me to be good or else I wouldn't've made me any money. And it was bad enough that she didn't get her one wish as just two days of riding after seeing her for the last time my brother got himself dead from a snake bite. After seeing him writhe like he did I guess that's what made me decide to quit the South and go down to the Arizona territory where a snake'll kill you before you ever get to say hello to it, much less goodbye.
I rode picturing myself from way up on a ridge where I wished I was, looking down at the small brown buildings of town and me and my horse riding away from it kickin' up a wake of dust behind us like a riverboat churns water. Every gallop and heartbeat I heard my suspicion grew that the man I killed wasn't just some hated sonofabitch what got it coming. I knew then that they were gonna come after me, so I rode between two big rocks to a pass I knew would take me to somebody who could help me now, if anyone could.
The sun was still pretty high in the sky, and I found myself wishing it was lower, because I wanted this damned day to be over. And not in light of the recent circumstances, either. I found myself always wanting whatever damned day it was to be over these days. Maybe not a good way to be. But it's not like lookin' at craggy tan rocks all the time with a shimmering haze of heat in front of 'em and a white-blue sky above 'em makes anywhere a good place to be. It's why the Apaches are the Apaches. If you're not a crazy sonofabitch before you get to Arizona, the sun'll make sure and change that, because the sun here's meaner than it is anywhere else. And for no good reason, neither.
I knew my way up the canyon I wanted to be on, and I knew it was making my horse almost as tired and beleaguered as me so I figured he could just walk over to where we were going. At the edge of some pines on the top of the plateau that's where I saw Tom and some white men he strung up with what looked like just one piece of rope. Me and my horse walked over to them and I wondered if he was as relieved as I was. But Tom's not one for sharing his emotions publicly, and I tell him that's why I haven't killed him yet. His real name's not Tom, I just call him that because I figured for an Apache who speaks such good English he should have an English name and Tom sounded about as English as I could think of at the time. I always got a kick out of hearing his life story. He says he was taken in and raised by a philanthropist banker in Tuscon, and that a whole cavalry division marched into the camp and stole him as a baby so he could become an interpreter, which in a way would be beneficial to everyone involved, in the long term. His tribe saw this, so they got the wiliest, wisest, most dangerous drunken bastard, Carlo was his name, to sneak into the banker's mansion twice a week to teach Tom growing up the ways of the Apache. Well, one night he was caught and he told Tom to tell the sheriff that Carlo had come to kill him, and Tom did as told but didn't like it as he knew what fate awaited his friend. About a week later, the night after Carlo was hanged, they found the banker in bed with a knife sticking out his throat and no Tom in sight. When I asked him one time a long time ago why he killed the man and ran rather than just runnin' he said it was on account of the inherent fakeness of the white man, the banker especially. He said to me 'If a man's fake, he's dead with a still-beating heart.'
When I came close enough to talk I stayed on top of my horse and grinned at Tom. He nodded, arms crossed. Beside him there were four cavalrymen, and they was tied by the same rope to a pine tree on the edge of the patch.
'Tom, I got a little angry back in town just now, and I made a little mess,' I said.
'Wh-who are you talking to?' asked one grey-haired lieutenant-looking character. His mustache was all unwaxed and he had silver stubble on his jaw. Made him look real funny. 'That Injun there don't speak no English. We been trying to bargain for our lives for two days now, but I'm afraid it falls on savage ears.' He smiled a weak, sickening, panting smile. I looked at Tom, and I could tell he'd had enough, so I handed him a long-barreled six-gun from my pack. He made sure it was loaded.
'If I were you,' I said to the cavalrymen, 'I wouldn't say a word for another few minutes.'
'Two things,' said Tom, inspecting the pistol in his hand closely. It had flowers engraved in it, two long roses along the barrel and a daisy on either side of the hand grip. That had cost me extra. I could tell the men were surprised that Tom could speak English, as they always were, but I was glad I told 'em to shut up so they wouldn't start in on the pleadin' for their lives with renewed fervor, as I always was. 'Firstly, you used the term "savage" when speaking of two parts of my body. I assume then that you wish to imply that my body is a "savage," from my ears, to my fingers, to my toes. But then I wonder, O great white man, master of the English language and Western reasoning, if my body is a savage, and I am my body, then by that alone I become... a savage. But isn't "savage" the word, also used to define acts of savagery? Savage behavior? And I implore you to tell me what I have exactly done during our brief acquaintanceship that can be deemed as the behavior of a savage. Yes, I tied you and your men up, but doesn't the white man, the beacon of purity and goodness, does he not use this very method of restraint, the rope, to bind his enemies? Ah, he does, but he does not merely restrain. He kills with the rope. He ties the rope into the noose and leaves his brothers to dangle as the breath leaves them with a mask over their heads. I have seen it. And I know it to be "savage" behavior. Just as I knew it when we met, Captain Lewis.' He was speaking now directly to the grey-haired, sweating, gulping officer. 'Do you remember the state in which I found you, two days ago? Let me tell you, so my friend can hear.' Tom looked at me briefly, then looked back at the officer. 'You were engaged in forcible carnality with a young Apache girl, while your men sat laughing and drinking.' He stared hard with harder eyes at the captain before him. 'Tell me,' he said, 'is that not the behavior of a savage?
'Secondly. As to why I did not answer you when you were "bargaining for your life," as you put it, it is because your lives mean so little to me. And a man who bargains for something that is worthless--' Tom put the gun against the Captain's temple-- 'need not bargain at all.'
Quicker than quick I went for my hip and shot the other three, two twice in the chest and one once in the throat. Would've shot him twice there but I forgot to put the one bullet in after the altercation back in town. But it turned out alright, because he just stood there gurgling, not sayin' a damn word with his eyes goin' crazy and the blood stainin' his collar. I reached in my pack and got out some rounds with which to reload. My gun was a peacemaker, and like the other one it had flowers on it but I had the guy change the lettering on the side so it would say "warmaker," as I always felt the original name was something of a misnomer. That had cost me extra extra.
Tom then came as close as he ever gets to smiling and cocked back the hammer of my pistol in his hand.
'Wait!' Captain Lewis shouted.
'What, last words?' I said.
'No, no, I was just wonderin'... why you told us to not say a word for a few minutes.'
'Well think about it,' I said, 'Tom's speech would've been so much less dramatic. Would you ever interrupt some-'
BLAM! said the gun as Tom shot the Captain.
Once I had explained to Tom my situation, he said he knew of a little alcove-type place wherein I could hole up, to which I said would be dandy so he got his horse from out of the pines and we started ridin' towards it. It was up at the top of a switchback between a couple of canyons up a godforsaken mountain, with a sea of desert right outside for miles out. We didn't say nothin' to each other as we rode up since it was a pretty steep grade and it kept windin' and twistin'. I'd say I kept to my thoughts but I didn't have thoughts as much as I had a general swirling anger just settin' down on its haunches inside my head. I was glad that Tom would be there to show me around and keep me company around the fire that night though I'd never tell it to him even if I lay dyin'. But then I got angry again when a thought occurred to me, and I went ahead and shared it with Tom.
'Hey Tom,' I said, 'I believe you owe me a bullet.'
Tom was silent for a while until we came to the next bend and I looked up at him up on his horse, me squintin' on account of the sun right in front of me and him squintin' on account of his bein' Indian and he said, 'From the captain?'
'Yeah, that's right,' I said, 'from the captain.'
'If you cared so much about your bullets,' he said, 'you wouldn't always give me your gun when I round up white men.' I always liked it when he used the term "round up" when referring to us blancos, because that's what we say when we get Indians. Gives it a sort of ring that makes you feel like them white bastards are finally gittin' what's a-comin' to 'em. It also always made me wonder when I lay awake at night whether I really had love for the Indians or if I just had a deep-seated hatred toward my own society. I didn't like to think too much about that one, though.
'Yeah but Tom,' I said, looking at his Winchester pokin' out the saddle, 'it just ain't right to shoot a man with a rifle at point blank.'
'Ah hell, you know I don't give a damn about him. I'm just sayin' it don't feel right. You shoot a man with a pistol or shotgun when he's close, save the rifle for when he's far. It's etiquette.'
'Well, I don't see the trouble then. I shot him with a pistol, which is what you are saying I should do, and I saved a rifle shot for a man who is far. Would you rather I use my "own" bullets, or follow your rule regarding pistols and rifles?'
The horses clopped along. 'Tom,' I said, 'You should be a god-damn lawyer.'
We were settling down in the alcove thinking about getting some sleep, finishing off the last of the coffee and looking at the ash streaked with orange embers in the pit, with the blue midnight sky and its stars just about covered up by the dark rock walls of the canyon. I was feelin' the way I always do after I just killed a man, kind of this rushin' poetic feeling like I'm gonna now experience all the things he can't go on to experience because I cut him down. It's nice. Nobody knows about it except killers though. And even then, it's just killers with a sense of humor that know it. I don't believe that Tom knows it but I don't think he'd really be the type who'd spend the day killin' if he only had one last day to live. He just kills because he feels he got done wrong. So sittin' there thinkin' I got to rememberin' and I thought about way back when down in the bayou with my aunt Bessie and her wine. She had this boyfriend who would always come to the house and he was the typical Southern faux-gentleman who always tried to keep his pomp and gait but who you knew was harder on his luck than some slaves. I'd never liked him and my anger grew as I heard him and my aunt while I swept the kitchen or whittled toys for my brother with my knife. You could hear the bed making the floorboards creak all through the house because anything would make those damn old floorboards creak they were so filled with termites and mildew. Everything in the house was covered by a layer of the swamp next to it, I always thought, as if when they were planning Louisiana they just dumped a swamp over everything and in some places it sunk in more than others. I think that kind of swamp gets to people. It got to him and I guess it had gotten to my aunt for falling for him. I had known he was vile from the start but I never could prove it. Then I knew something was funny when he started coming over with gifts for me, candy from distant places around the world and toys and things. I never accepted them and he just left them on the table. After he'd go upstairs I'd destroy 'em all with my knife. One day I didn't have my knife, but I saw a pitchfork leaning in the corner 'cause my aunt wanted me to work on her garden later that day. As I got up from the table to get it I didn't hear the floorboards creaking anymore and when I looked up I saw the man standing there with his big black moustache and a white and black suit like he was about to go to church. That suit made me so angry that it probably accounted for a good deal of my reaction to what he tried to do to me. He started coming close to me and even though I had never seen that look in his eyes before I recognized it immediately. He held out one hand, and I took it in mine, then led him to the table. He sat down, wondering what I was doing but enjoying himself anyways from the looks of it. I turned slowly around and grabbed the pitchfork before he noticed, and spinning lightning fast in a half circle I smashed the side of his head. He fell over in his chair and I punched his throat when he was on the ground. I wasn't old but I had a good punch. Then I grabbed the pitchfork again and stuck him in the belly, then raised it, then stuck him again. He looked down at his wound like he was trying to come to terms with the end of his life so I stuck him in the face. When I looked at the blood seeping out of him getting all over his suit I hated the fact that he had had time to think about his life while he died by my hand. For that reason every man I've killed since him I've done so with a gun. After I dragged his body out and dumped it in the swamp tied to a couple rocks I came back into the house with my blood-stained clothes to find my aunt looking for her lover, calling his name walking around with her naked body exposed, her robe open and her hair all a mess. Seeing her like that with red marks from where his hands had been on her I was so glad that I killed him I smiled and I guess that's what made her start screaming. She locked herself in her room and told me I had to go back to live with my mother, that I was a devil chile and she would call the sheriff on me as soon as I left the house. I don't know if she did, but it was the first time I'd been wanted by the law and it exhilarated me.
I remember when they tried to make me go to school once I asked the teacher why he had become a teacher. He told me when you find something you love you should pursue it. I'd like to think I never let him down.
Next to me Tom was probably getting sleepy. Either that or he was staring across the dry scorched desert of his past too judging by the glassy look of his near-black eyes. At any rate I laid down and pulled the brim of my hat over my face.
'Why did you kill him?' Tom asked, forcing me trudge back to consciousness.
'Shit, Tom, you ain't never asked that before.'
'This time I would like to know.'
'Why, though? Didn't I give you enough reason?'
'I understand that you have a very low tolerance for his sort, but that's not enough of a reason.'
'What's your point.' I didn't phrase it as a question because, hell, I was speaking to Tom.
'I suspect that he had little to do with his own murder.'
I propped myself up on my elbow. I opened my mouth but instead of starting to talk, I started to think. I killed him 'cause he was sanctimonious. I killed him because he thought he owned the place. I killed him because he walked up to me like I didn't look dangerous. These reasons hadn't been big in my mind, but they were there. I suppose I had always needed some kind of justification to kill men, but I suppose now I could see Tom was saying what I had been suspecting ever since I walked out of that saloon. My justifications are becoming formalities.
'I killed him for the hell of it, Tom.' I said it in a real soft voice. So soft I couldn't recognize it.
He looked at me for a while. 'How long will it be?' he said. When I looked at him I saw his face the same way as I had seen it when I first looked at him in the moonlight. When I took his hand to lead him into the cave to spend the night with me he carried his knife because he suspected I was going to kill him, unlike the Southern man I had killed in the house on the bayou all those years ago. I reasoned with myself that it was because he held the knife when he kissed me, prepared at any instant to use it against me in self-defense, that I didn't kill him. But I knew it was something else. Now I knew he didn't suspect I was going to kill him but I could tell that he was going to follow me to whatever fate had in store for me. Now I seemed to be writing fate for myself by killing for fun. And I wanted him not to follow me now because I loved him but I wouldn't say it to him, I wouldn't say any of it.
Instead I kissed him and stroked his neck, then pulled the brim of my hat over my eyes and laid down and fell asleep.
I woke up when I heard the first gunshot out of Tom's rifle. He was crouched wrapped in a patterned blanket because it was a chill morning and his sights were pointed towards the canyon opposite the alcove. They must have gotten onto the cliffs to get a better shot at us. Tom pulled the trigger guard out and cocked his gun, then aimed and fired again. I didn't know how long he had been waiting there but I took a guess as to why he didn't wake me. There were too many of them. We wouldn't make it. If he thought we'd have a chance he would've made me wait up with him and maybe cover the back entrance of the alcove where they would most certainly sneak in on us. Or maybe he just wanted me well-rested and alert but that's a little too optimistic for Tom, or for me.
I looked around at the rock walls now lit by the morning sun and the streaks of clouds orange from the sunrise in the blue-as-hell sky. I got up and stretched leisurely because Tom didn't seem to be in that great of a hurry. I walked over and got my pistols and put the belt around my waist. I took out the long-barreled one because it had better range and I wished that I had a rifle.
'How many's out there, Tom?'
'A lot. I got one. Didn't kill him.'
I checked my guns, seeing how well-oiled they were, which was plenty. 'Do you got any tobacco?' I asked. Tom shook his head.
After a while he said 'They're some on the ledge on the canyon opposite but most of them are hiding in the switchbacks. If you step out to get a clear shot at the canyon they'll shoot you straight up the chin.'
'Well, do you have a fork?'
'Check the saddle bag.' Tom never used a fork. He liked to sit with the rifle poking out of a blanket like a true Indian. He said to me that the fork made him feel like he was a white soldier.
I walked over to the saddle bag and found some chili peppers that I put in my pocket and then I found the old branch that we had used over the years as a fork, but since its last use one of the prongs had broken off. 'Tom,' I said, 'we couldn't use this fork to shoot our way out of a paper pot. It's broke.'
He raised the rifle and fired again.
Bullets came back this time, a lot of them. They were trying to pin us to the canyon wall. Tom jumped sideways and the blanket fell down on the dusty floor. The canyon walls harbored about half a dozen tiny explosions of small rocks and dust every five seconds from the bullets and I hoped the rocks weren't hard enough for them to ricochet.
'What'll we do?' I yelled over the gunfire. Tom handed me the rifle and took my guns out of my belt. Then he put them in one hand and placed the other hand on my stomach and moved it slowly around to my back and when it was between my shoulder blades he kissed me. I touched his throat while he said 'You shoot them on the canyon while I fire on the switchbacks.' Then he got down, crawling like a snake to position himself to fire down. I stood up. The bullets had stopped raining as hard. I put a chili pepper into my mouth and bit down, then stepped to the side.
Tom fired down with both of my pistols while ducking in and out of the alcove and I looked at the canyon opposite us. There were about four men lined up with rifles and I fired and cocked and fired and cocked and fired and cocked shooting at all of them. Two went down and one fell screaming to his death and there was a cloud of gun smoke that cancelled out the effect of the chili pepper in my mouth. I stepped to the side while they fired back and I checked the rifle. I went to reload at the same time Tom did. He was empty, but I was not. I just wanted a full clip to shoot with. I put the shells in and cocked it. Then I stepped back out, even though Tom wasn't covering me and I started firing again, this time with a fresh chili that I had put in my mouth while reloading. I shot in a line across the opposite canyon wall and saw one of them duck yet I still shot him in the head. As I stepped back to Tom I noticed fleetingly the blood on the wall of the canyon from the three I had shot. I hadn't even noticed the men firing from below me and I supposed they weren't as numerous as we had suspected.
I started reloading again and I hated that I wasn't a better shot with a rifle. Tom had finished reloading my warmaker and he was putting a fourth round in the long-barreled gun. Then we both heard it, the sound of rocks against rocks in the back entrance of the canyon, and Tom put down my guns and pulled his knife. He ran straight into where we had heard the sound as the fire from the rifles opposite us still roared, and I heard a slash and a man screaming. I hoped to God that there was just one, but then I heard a gunshot. Immediately I picked up my pistols and ran there myself to see Tom leaning against one wall of the narrow pass with his dark gut spouting darker blood and a man with a knife stuck in his throat leaning against the other.
I grabbed the latter man and propped him up with one hand while still sort of leaning him on the wall and when his friend peeked out he shot again, this time hitting the dead man. I fired twice and heard him groan, then he disappeared around the narrow bend. I followed him and saw him leaning with his gun perpendicular to the sky and before he pointed it at me I shot him in the cheek. I heard two more men coming down the pass and I dragged Tom back to where we had holed up the previous night. His eyes were wild but not without peace as I said 'Tom, I love you,' and when I saw them coming up from the switchback I began firing all the rounds I had with the gun smoke and the sounds of the bullets travelling up and away from the canyon.
The two lawmen walked up to the body. They both had hats but one wore a long coat. He still hadn't let himself be convinced that he was in Arizona, and he was sweltering. The other had a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up. They took long, slow pulls on their cigarettes.
'She was a pretty thing, that's for sure,' said the one in the coat.
'What's that red stuff around her mouth? Not blood. Or lipstick.'
'Chilies. It's a Mexican trick, you chew chili peppers to make you tear up. Gives you better eyesight. It works, but you've got to be absolutely crazy to chew a chili pepper, no matter how in jeopardy you are.'
'Don't like spicy food, sheriff?' the man in the blue shirt asked with a grin.
The younger man looked around and spat over his left shoulder. He looked to the sheriff like he was happy that the gunfight was over and he was still alive, and was trying to deal with the situation with humor.
'You think she was involved with that Injun there?'
'The way he killed James, I'd say that'd be a safe bet.'
'But why? Did she have no sense of decency at all?'
The sheriff looked at her body, her brown curls not tied up and her black hat somehow managing to look feminine. She didn't look like any woman the sheriff had ever seen, with her big-buckled belt and her emerald-colored jacket, her ruffled blouse spattered with blood. She still had a pretty face, the posse had managed to preserve that. He wondered momentarily over that face, so white and smooth, pressed against the broad, killer's face of the Apache she was with. However hard he tried he could not picture them kissing passionately. He couldn't even picture her killing a man, yet there was no doubt that she had done that. He looked at the fresh young kid in the blue shirt with his golden stubble a couple days old and said, 'No, son. No decency at all.'