Published on Tuesday, October 19, 2010
By T. A. Moore
It was a small rock.
No larger than a hand closed to a fist.
But it loomed large in his head. Right now it was the only thing between him and a death spent kicking on the end of a rope. All he had to do was keep it under his toes and stop it rolling away.
If he could do that then he could stand here till the vultures got brave enough to come down and start eating him alive. Or until he passed out and hung himself that way.
The man blinked sweat out of his eyes, droplets clinging to the end of sandy lashes and laughed bitterly. His choices were unenviable. Hang now or hang later. Either way he would die.
Still, he stretched his feet down, the long muscles in his thighs cramping in protest, and stayed balanced on the rock. He was determined to cling to life for just that little while longer. You never knew after all. With his luck he'd let the rope take his weight and strangle him just as someone came riding up to cut him down.
The rough twist of hemp rope around his throat scraped at his Adam's apple when he craned his head around to stare at white petticoats that were drying in the sun. There was a gecko perched on the white lace feeding on the clotting blood. The man's jaw clenched, a muscle fluttering under the weathered skin.
Besides, if he let go there'd be no-one to go after Taggart for what he'd done here today. And he wanted Taggart to pay; he wanted it a lot.
The woman hadn't been anything to him, mind. She'd just been a proper nice lady, who weren't too full of herself to pass the time of a day with a trail worn, past his best saddle bum. She had listened to his tall tales, exclaimed at his adventures and scanned the passing terrain of scrubby grass and rocks for the elusive jackalopes when he'd assured her that these were their breeding grounds. But when the leering outlaws had tried to pull her out of the stage he'd been too dirt stupid to keep his damn mouth shut and his hands in the air.
No, he looked away from the dead body closed his eyes, he'd had to play the hero. As if it was ten years afore and he was still full of piss and vinegar and quick enough on the trigger to make bigger men sing meek and low when he was on the prod.
Except ten years was a long time and he wasn't a young buck in his twenties anymore. He wasn't long off forty and he hadn't even managed to draw his guns before the gang took them away from him.
The screaming hadn't lasted that long, thank god. The pretty Eastern lady with her pretty Eastern ways had gone quiet soon enough. It had been too soon for the crop of wolfsheads who'd run them the coach off the road. They'd been all set to have their fun with her and if she wasn't going to co-operate they'd just have to think of something else.
Like leaving the pistol whipped old fool who'd tried to stop them balancing on a rock the size of a child's heart while he tried to avoid becoming the guest of honour at a hemp party.
He tilted his head back and squinted up at the sun that hung in the baked turquoise sky. Heat baked his skin and dried the moist tissues in his eyes and nose. It would be hours till nightfall. He closed his eyes and sighed. He should have just kept his damned mouth shut.
When help finally came he was too far gone in fever dreams to recognise it. He fought the Mexican who was trying to cut him down, confusing him with the gunned down men who haunted his nightmares. Luckily he was too weak to do any damage.
He came to briefly when he manhandled him onto the back of a mule, opening his eyes to see his rescuer, a small dark man with a wrinkle-seamed face. He tried to speak but his lips stuck together and his tongue felt like a strip of rawhide.
"Here, Señor," The Mexican held a canteen of water to the half-dead man's lips. The man was too weak to drink so the Mexican poured a trickle of water over the cracked, burnt lips. "You should rest, Senor," he said. Heavy, salt and pepper brows drew together as he puzzled over his English. After the cowboy had gulped a few mouthfuls of water he took the canteen back, capping it and hanging it from his waist. He wiped his hands down his poncho and walked over to the dead woman. His hand rose to cross himself. "...El Diablo."
"No," the cowboy muttered. Beneath his cheek the mule's neck was rough and dusty. On the back of his eyelids he could still see the outlaw's face, young and handsome enough if you ignored the cruelty that twisted his mouth into a sneer. He knew his name too; the outlaws had not thought to be careful with that around someone they planned to kill. "Not el Diablo. Taggart. His name was Taggart."
The Mexican took his hat off and ran short fingers through greying, sweat damp hair. A cough rattled up from his chest and he had to wait for the spasm before he could speak.
"I think he is close enough to the Devil," he disagreed solemnly. Scratching his jaw he squinted at the man he had rescued. "I am Miguel, stranger." He offered his name in the hope of an answer, for something to put on the stranger's grave if nothing else. But the cowboy had lapsed back into his nightmares and Miguel got no answer.
Miguel clicked his tongue against his teeth to gee the mule into motion, adding the incentive of a hard callused hand to its rump when it just flicked its ears back at him.
"Then I will call you Stranger, eh? You have your share of luck, Stranger. Perhaps you will bring some to my village and the children will get better?"
It was the touch of a damp, rough cloth to his forehead that woke the man from his nightmares. His lashes were crusted with sleep and it took him a minute to get them open. An old woman was leaning over him and she said something in a language he didn't recognize when she saw he was awake. She stared at him expectantly.
The tip of his tongue touched his dry lower lip and he shook his head. "I'm sorry," he rasped. He barely recognized the sound of his own voice. "I don't understand."
The old woman snorted and turned away. When she came back she was carrying a cup of water.
She helped him to sit up, bare shoulders resting against the cool adobe wall, and held the cup to his mouth. He drank thirstily until the water was gone and then tried to stammer out thanks.
The old woman, her wrinkled face set in hard lines, waved his words away. She said something in Spanish for all he didn't understand and nodded. He tried to speak to her again but she shook her head, turned her back and shuffled away.
It took him three days to regain his strength. The old woman divided her time between tending to him and praying to the small shrine she had set up in the corner of the room. Worn fingers counted the polished beads of her rosary and she muttered her prayers over and over until the cowboy heard the words in his sleep.
"Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia, el Señor es contigo," The old cracked voice rattled around his head, sounding like the beads clicking together. "Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres, y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús."
On the fourth day he woke up to find the old woman standing over him. She told him something in Spanish and threw her hands up in frustration when he shook his head helplessly. Without the words to explain what she wanted she just gave him his clothes and waved her hands towards the door, repeating her commands over and over. Finally the cowboy nodded, pretending he understood, and she grunted in satisfaction and walked out of the room.
Alone, the cowboy slumped back onto the bed. He was no longer sick but he was still weak and tired easily. The old woman was right, though, it was time to go.
Once he was dressed, a cracked Stetson that wasn't his pulled low on his brow, the cowboy limped out of the house. Outside he had to stop, the bright light nearly blinding him after days spent in dim light. When his eyes cleared he saw the old woman leading a sway backed old piebald horse, saddled and ready to go, towards him.
This time he figured he could guess what she was saying so he nodded and scrambled gracelessly into the saddle.
Once mounted he hesitated, shifting his hips in the worn saddle, and looked down at his nurse. During his sickness the old lady had seemed made of steel and piety but now, standing by his stirrup, she looked old and frail and small.
"You shouldn't stay here alone," he stated and then paused. The sound of his voice a surprise after days spent in the enforced silence of mutual incomprehension. Then he lent forwards and he held out his hand, point to her and patting his chest to try and make sure she understood him. "You should come with me."
"No," understanding the gesture if not the words the old woman stepped back. Her hands rose to fold over the wooden cross that rested on sunken chest. "Permaneceré con mi familia." The cowboy moved his lips, trying to puzzle out the unfamiliar words.
"Familia? Family?" he repeated and she nodded. "Where? I can take you too them..."
His nurse shook her head again and then waved towards the Church behind him with a twisted hand. He turned, reining the piebald back when it shifted its hooves, and stared at the whittled wooden crosses that sprouted from the raw mounds of earth.
"Allí," The old woman said. "Alli. Los ensamblaré." That said she turned and walked back into her house, closing the door firmly behind her.
Closed out in the sun the cowboy half-rose in his stirrups, meaning to dismount and go after her, but then he sat back down. He took one last glance at the rows of markers, crossed himself with a clumsy hand and kicked the piebald into a walk.
He coughed when they crossed the boundary of the town, a tickle scratching at the back of his throat, and spat phlegm onto the dirt. It was noon when he walked into Blue Ridge.
He would have ridden but his horse had collapsed a few yards outside the town limits. So the stranger had been forced to leave it for crow bait and finish his trip of on foot.
Vultures were already swooping down to perch on the body of the dying piebald as he walked away.
He limped into town on fancy tooled and heeled boots more suited to forking a horse than a hike over uneven rocky ground. There were people who saw him arrive, a shabby child playing in the dust and a harried looking woman in a limp bonnet who was brushing her porch. They watched him go past and then turned their backs and hurried indoors.
The folk of Blue Ridge had enough bad luck to go around. They didn't need to go courting it and anyone with eyes could see that the weary stranger in his worn shabby cowboy finery was mighty unlucky man.
It was bad enough to be afoot and worn down to the bone but then to end up in Blue Ridge? Even in the best of times no cow-wrangler worth his salt would turn his horse towards this little piss-pot town on the edge of nowhere. The locals farmed cactus and sheep and could barely feed themselves on the harvest never mind hire on ranch hands. And that was in the best of times.
These days the only skill could get you hired in Blue Ridge was skill with a gun. And the stranger, for all he wore a quickdraw rig slung low around his hips, carried no guns.
No horse, no guns and no skills to peddle beyond chasing big cows. The stranger was about as unlucky as a man could get. And the only thing someone that down on their luck was likely to bring to town was trouble. And that was one thing they did have enough of.
The cowboy limped on till he reached the store and then he stopped. He stood, arms hanging at his side and head bent, there for a long minute. Then he turned his head to the side and stared at the shopkeeper who had come out to see what was happening.
Under the shadow of his Stetson the cowboy's face was beyond gaunt. It was a canvas of hollows and leathery cracks that looked ready to fall off the front of his skull. The sun had scalded his skin a dull, angry red and burnt all the hair from his face. He was bald as an egg and looked one leathery step removed from a skull.
"Don't suppose I could bother y' for a drink there, sir?" he asked politely. When he smiled, blood welled from his cracked lips. "I'm a mite dry.
The storekeep sighed with relief, the cowboy might look like a haint from an old timers tale but if he wanted water then he was human enough, and nodded.
"I expect I could do something about that," he said. "If y'ull just wait here a moment I'll get you a mug of water."
The cowboy watched the lean, city looking man disappear back into the shop and then he closed his eyes. He stood there, eyes shut and long body swaying like a horse ready for the knackers yard, till the shopkeep came back with his drink. "Here you go," the man said, reaching the tin mug out.
When the stranger reached for it his dry, hot fingers brushed against the shopkeepers, the man snatched his hand back as if it had been burned. He rubbed down his apron covered front.
"Y' look purty bad," he noted, watching the man gulp down the water thirstily. "How long y'been ridin'?"
A dribble of water escaped the cowboy's mouth and ran down his chin. He wiped it away and then sucked the cold droplets from his dirty, wizened fingers as if it was the sweetest thing in the whole world.
Once all the water was gone the cowboy let the cup drop to the ground. His scalded face creased when he turned his attention to the question. "Forever?" he said. "Feels like it anyhow...."
He broke off what he had been saying when the cold water hit his stomach and doubled him in two with cramps. His hand on the rail outside the shop was all that kept him on his feet while he retched, vomiting up all the water he had just drank until there was nothing left in his gut. Too tired to spit he pushed the last thin vomit between his lips with his tongue. Then he canted his head back to look at the shopkeep.
"How far is it from hell to here?" he asked, rasping out what might have been a laugh. He straightened painfully, moving slowly like he was afraid his body would snap in half if he pushed it.
"That's how long I been in the saddle. Got to head back that way too, when my business here is done." He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. "What's your business?" the shopkeep asked.
The cowboy shook his head and pulled the Stetson down lower on his forehead. "It ain't with you," he said. "Where can I find Taggart?"
The inside of the bar was reflected in the long mirror mounted behind the bar; the back of the bartenders head and the waitresses in their tired frills and finery dodging the groping hands of the trail scruffy cowboys. In the middle of the bar two men sat playing cards at a table that the other customers gave a wide berth too.
The smaller man, short, sandy brown hair falling over his face, picked up his cards and looked at them. He rearranged the hand and then smiled slowly. "I win," Taggart said, shuffling his hand back into the deck. "Pay up, Abel."
On the other side of the table Abel curled his hands into fists, knuckles pressing against skin scarred by years of working the land. "You didn't show your cards."
"Y'all calling me a cheat now, Abel?" Taggart asked, shuffling the cards between his fingers and then smacking the deck down on the table.
Abel's mouth thinned and he glared at Taggart. The younger man smiled at him, and Abel swallowed and shook his head.
"No, Taggart," the farmer said meekly. He was not a coward. He had fought Indians, rustlers and the weather to hold onto his farm, but there was something missing in Taggart's gaze that cowed him. His pupils were like poker burnt holes into the space where his soul should be. "Ain't saying nothing like that."
Abel folded in on himself, shoulders slumping, while he watched Taggart gather up his winnings.
"I'm j...just a sore loser, I guess," Abel said. He licked his chapped lips and shifted in the chair.
"That's the last of my cash, Taggart. If you take it I ain't gonna be able to feed my family." Taggart shrugged.
"Ya shouldn't gamble what ya can't afford to lose," he said and picked up his glass to toss back the dregs of whiskey in the bottom. His lips peeled back from small yellow teeth and he hissed when the rotgut hit the back of his throat. Then he slammed the glass down on the table and laughed. "Hell, ya shouldn't have had so many damn kids."
Taggart's gang laughed at the leader's joke. The other townfolk looked away but didn't move to help. Abel opened his mouth to protest that he hadn't wanted to sit in on the game in the first place.
Taggart dropped his hand under the table and watched him expectantly.
The farmer closed his mouth and slumped. He dragged himself up from the chair and staggered over to the bar. Hands braced on the polished wooden counter Abel let his head hang. Eventually another man, his dirt-clogged, round-toed boots marking him as a farmer, came over, slapped his shoulder and bought him a bottle of whisky.
Taggart laughed derisively one last time and then went back to counting his winnings. He looked up when he heard the door open, his hand dropping to the butt of his guns and his cold eyes checking the mirror to see who had entered the bar. When he saw the cowboy limp into the bar, doubled over and vomit stuck to his boots and jeans, the dead eyed outlaw laughed and let go of his guns. Bracing his heels against the floor he pushed his chair back and stood up. He turned to face the ragged looking cowboy.
Too dehydrated to even sweat despite his scalded skin, the cowboy stopped to let the doors swing shut behind him. He stared around the bar, his bloodshot eyes lingering on the familiar faces of the outlaw gang. Then he faced the lean, brown haired man standing in the middle of the bar. "Taggart?" he rasped the question.
From the back of the gang, a lanky boy barely old enough to grow stubble on his face, lent forwards. Something about the cowboy's face plucked at his memory.
"Hey, Taggart? Ain't that the guy we..." he paused, his tongue wetting his lower lip, and cast a sly glance around at his audience-"run into on the stage the other day?"
Taggart looked over at the spotty youth, an eyebrow lifting, and then back to the cowboy. His eyes narrowed. "Well, Hellfire, Billy," he said. "I think you're right."
He hooked his thumb into his gun belt and swaggered over to the stranger. When he got close he could feel the heat of the man's fever radiating from him. He cocked his head to the side and looked the stranger up and down before barking out a laugh.
"I have to say I weren't expecting to see you again. It's a right long way you've dragged your sorry carcass and for what? Ya ain't got no guns and ya don't even look like ya could stand up in a strong wind," Taggart said, poking him in the chest with his forefinger. The contact made the cowboy stagger. "So what ya going do, old man? Fall on me?"
The cowboy smirked, blood smearing his teeth, and reached out to tangle bony fingers in Taggart's vest. "I got a present for yer, Taggart," he wheezed.
When help finally came he was too far gone in fever dreams to recognise it. He fought the Mexican who was trying to cut him down, confusing him with the gunned down men who haunted his nightmares. Luckily he was too weak to do any damage. Taggart tried to push him back but the cowboy refused to let go.
"Get off me," Taggart snarled. He drew his fist back and backhanded the stranger. "Jesus Christ. One of ya give me a hand to get this freak off me!" No one stepped forward to help.
The cowboy's legs gave way, and he dragged Taggart down to the ground with him. He coughed and vomited up a stringy mass of bile onto the outlaw's front. Panicked now, Taggart tried to squirm out of his vest.
"I brought it all this way just fer you, Taggart," the cowboy wheezed. "And I hope ya choke on it, boy."
He'd first realized he was sick when he was just a day out of the village. Fever trembled his limbs and nausea emptied his body of what little nourishment he was able to choke down. It hadn't been hard to work out that he had caught whatever contagion had killed the old Mexican woman's family.
He had cursed God at first. To have survived his hanging only to die trembling in his sweat seemed unfair. Especially when Taggart went unpunished by his sins. Then he was sitting by the fire, the old woman's prayers rattling through his brain, he had realized that God was helping him. Taggart had taken his guns, so God had given him a new weapon to use against Taggart. Against el Diablo.
He could kill all of them. He just had to reach them.
Sprawled on the sawdust-covered floor of the bar the stranger smiled even as Taggart pulled free and scrambled away. The outlaw skittered backwards over the floor like a broken back lizard. He held a hand out for someone to help him to his feet but everyone, his friends and victims united in their fear, drew back from him.
The stranger rolled onto his side, curling his emaciated form into a ball, and closed his eyes. He could hear Taggart ranting but he ignored it. He listened to the voice of the old woman in his head, repeating her benediction.
Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia, el Señor es contigo....
T.A Moore has been writing professionally for five years and is currently a journalist on www.CultureNorthernIreland.org. She has interviewed performance artist Andre Stitt, playwright Gary Mitchell, author Colin Bateman and actress Brenda Blethyn. She is currently providing coverage on the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's and the 20th Cinemagic festival.
Her first novel The Even was published in 2008 and the sequel will be published in Dec 2010. In addition to that she has been in short story collections with Stuart Neville, Arlene Hunt, C.E Murphy and Ramsey Campbell.