Subterranean Press Magazine: Winter 2013
Hard Silver by Steven R. Boyett
Twelve miles outside of Agville they came across a silver miner half dead from the beating and the tarring he’d been given before the town ran him out on his splithoof rackribbed mule. The tar had cooked him to the bone in places and plugs of skin had festered where he had worried at patches. He was half cooked from slumping under the Nevada sun with no hat and a linen shirt shredded into hanging strips, and he lay pitched forward on his gaunt mule standing in its traces on the barren plain.
The indian and the white man reined their spotted palomino and white morab stallion before the miner and sat watching him a moment. Their shadows leaning toward him in the late day sun. Then the white man shook his head and both men dismounted. The white man handed his mount’s reins to the indian and went to the mule while his partner tethered the horses to a saguaro. He put a gloved hand on the mule’s scrawny neck and smelled bad meat coming off the miner.
“Can you hear me, mister?” he said.
The miner didn’t open his eyes. “I got nothing you can take,” he wheezed.
“We aren’t going to take anything from you. Who did this to you?”
The miner coughed. “Them sumbitches in Agville.” He did not try to sit up but spoke leaning forward against the mule’s neck, eyes closed and looking like some weathered child talking in his troubled sleep. “I come to work for shares. They tole me the mine’s played out and then stomped the shit out of me. They hit up my mule with a four-by. This mule never done nothing wrong.”
The indian frowned. He motioned at his partner and the two men eased the miner from his mule and set him on the hardpan ground. His grayed moustache and beard stained brick red with dried blood. A tooth knocked out and one eye swollen shut and turned plum purple. Broken collarbone. Broke ribs. Glistening burns from the hot pitch.
The indian examined the man and looked up at the white man and shook his head. The white man nodded and the indian left to search the twilit scrub for herbs to make a salve. Bare though this country was he’d find them too.
The man moved so that his shadow fell over the miner. He set a gloved hand on the man’s shoulder and began to question him gently but firmly.
The miner’s name was Zachary Barstow. He’d been hardluck panning along the San Joaquin in Northern California when an itinerant barber and whoremaster told him about the strike in Agville. He figured he could do no worse in Nevada than he was doing in Cali so he packed the mule and headed out.
“Hadn’t been there a day when they beat hell out of me,” he said. “Town’s just strange.”
“Plain unfriendly. Don’t cotton to strangers. Said the mine’s played out and I best move on. Fine by me. You could see they wasn’t doing so good. Even my damn mule didn’t like the place. New as a colt and still looked rundown. They was a pack a wild dogs had went after someone’s kid, chewed her up something awful. I offered to help round em up but they wouldn’t none of it. Said town people take care a town problems.”
“And they ran you out?”
“I was already leaving and they caught me up and did all this you see here.”
“You had to have done something. Or they thought you did anyway.”
“Mister, all I wanted from them people was a lot of mule tracks tween me and them. There wasn’t nothing there for me and I don’t stay where I’m not wanted.”
“Maybe you said something. Were they religious people?”
The miner looked at the man for the first time. Blue eyes bright in the ruin of his face. “You a lawman? You talk like a lawman.”
“I used to be.”
“Shame you ain’t still. Maybe you could shoot them sumbitches for what they done to me and my mule.”
“I promise you I’ll do what I can to make it right.”
“Well, unless you’re god himself I don’t see how you could do that. But I thank you for the thought.”
He started coughing and there was a lot of fluid in it. The former lawman helped him turn onto his side so he wouldn’t choke. He hadn’t bothered masking up because it was clear the man wouldn’t last the night. He himself had survived worse but that was him. It was just a mean old world, that’s all.
He left the miner to rest and looked over the mule still standing quiet and blinking as if waiting for instructions. A goodsized goose egg was swelled up and split between the left eye and ear and flies swarmed the cut.
The man went to his horse and patted it and got a rock candy string from the saddlepack. He gave it to the mule and patted its pitiful neck while it chewed. The miner stopped coughing and when the man went back to him he was dead.
The indian came back with a handful of weeds and when he saw the miner he put water on to boil and threw in the weeds and watched them simmer. His companion knew better than to bother him right now. A few minutes later the indian dipped his bandana into the boiling pot and brought the steaming cloth to the mule and pressed it against the swelling.
“Coyote is out there,” he said.
The white man frowned. “You saw him?”
“No. But he is there.”
“You know we have to go to that town.”
“We must be careful.”
“We’re always careful.”
“We must be more careful than usual.”
The man drummed his fingers on his thigh. “What aren’t you telling me?”
The indian shook his head. “You are christian. You think I am superstitious.”
“I’ve always respected your beliefs.”
The indian nodded but would say no more.
They buried the miner in a shallow grave and fed the mule and turned it loose but it would not leave. The former lawman said he didn’t want to bring it into Agville but he didn’t want to leave it out here to die either. The indian told him that the mule would be all right.
They put out the fire as dark came on because there was no way to hide it on this flat landscape, and they ate a simple dinner of cold beans and tortillas. The white man shared some penny candies that he knew the indian had a weakness for. They discussed their strategy for tomorrow and then they unrolled their bedrolls and slept beneath a shadowcasting gibbous moon.
Next morning the white man entered Agville alone. He was dressed as a miner in dusty clothes and a full beard attached with spirit gum. He slumped in the saddle to look smaller and older. There was no hiding his stallion’s vigor and breeding, but he’d dirtied the horse and gaunted it up by highlighting its ribs with careful application of the fine gray alkaline dust of this country that seeped into everything.
Agville was a shapeless clump at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains. One dirt street bordered by two plank walkways and a scatter of dwellings and wellbuilt stores all made from new lumber, and all of it gone to seed. At the far end of town he could see a small whitewashed church and a large whitepainted house with a gabled roof and a swing on a broad veranda. Half a dozen other buildings had been halted mid construction and lay exposed as if some calamity had sent their builders running. Brittle tumbleweeds fetched up against a musty stable. Crows pecked through dry dog turds in the street and on the walkways. Just another stillborn town abandoned after someone’s paydirt played out.
The former lawman was well acquainted with such economics, as he still owned a steadily producing mine back in Texas. His old teacher, himself a former Ranger, now ran the mine for shares, and cast the very bullets that had become the former lawman’s calling card. The lighter-grain silver .45 slugs demanded precision casting because the silver shrank as it cooled. The slugs had much less penetrating power than lead, but as it was his policy never to shoot to kill, he had not found occasion to be bothered by this. The old man thought it was an affectation he would live to regret, but he always had more bullets ready for him every time he came back to the mine. He had not been back there in some time and he was down to what rounds were in the Colts. It would be good to go back to Texas anyway. He had known the old man and the indian since he was very young, and both men were the only other living souls who knew his real identity. You had to trust some people in this world or else not partake of it.
He saw a shingle reading ormond hotel up ahead and he made for that. To his left the butcher-papered window of a general store boasted pure flour and unadulterated coffee. The door beside it opened and a girl came onto the porch. She was thin enough to make you wince and swallowed by a shapeless faded sunday dress with a threadbare white lace collar. She hugged the post by the porch steps and her elbows knobbed. Her hair cut ragged short and her eyes so shadowed in their sockets that he thought they were ringed with kohl.
“There’s no one at the hotel,” she called. “They closed down.”
He halted his horse and looked at her. “Well, thank you for letting me know, young lady.”
She grinned when he said young lady and her teeth were widespaced in a wide mouth. There was something odd about her eyes but he couldn’t figure out what it was from here.
“I am looking for my brother Zachary,” he said. “He probably showed up here in the last day or two. Do you know where he might be staying?”
The girl looked back at the store and the door opened again and a woman stepped onto the porch. She was the image of the little girl in twenty years.
“Avy, you get on in,” she said.
The girl looked petulant but let go the post and ran inside. The door stayed open behind her.
“Your brother’s not here, mister,” the woman said.
“It’s possible I am a day or two ahead of him,” the man said. “I would be grateful if you could tell me where I might doss down until he arrives.”
The woman raised her head and sniffed. She was looking at his horse. “There’s nowhere open to take you in. The mine’s closed down. We don’t get many here.”
“I am sorry to hear that, ma’am. My brother and I were hoping to work for shares. I guess I will just wait for him and we will try our luck somewhere else. I would be happy to work in trade for a place to bed down.”
“There’s no work here. There’s nowhere to take you in.”
“Is there a livery stable? I would like to take care of my horse. And Zachary will have a mule.”
He became aware that a figure was watching from the shadowed doorway. He nodded in that direction but the figure did not move.
“Best you ride on, mister. There’s nothing here for you.”
“Yes, maam. I will be happy to after I meet up with my brother.”
“There’s road agents and apaches along the way here. He may not meet up with you.”
“I appreciate your concern, and if Zachary has not arrived by dark tomorrow I will likely head out to see if he has encountered such.”
The woman glanced back at the store and then nodded and stepped off the porch toward him. His horse shied as she approached. The woman halted and held up a hand and the horse reared. The former lawman was nearly thrown, and it was all he could do to get the horse down and settled. He leaned forward and spoke softly to the horse and laid a hand against its neck. The horse calmed but still looked ready to bolt.
The woman lowered her hand but did not step back. She regarded the horse blankly. “Don’t take to strangers much, does he?”
“This horse has been shot at, swung on, lassoed, and hazed,” the former lawman said, “and he has never broke stride. He got hit by lightning once and didn’t so much as flinch.”
The woman shrugged. “I guess I got all that beat,” she said.
“Well, I intend to water him and rest him up. Is there not somewhere out of the heat I might do that and not upset nobody?”
He saw that she wanted to consult with the figure in the store again but she did not. She studied him and she studied his horse. Then she pointed down the street. “Livery’s behind the hotel. The owner’s gone but no one’ll bother you if you look after your horse there. There’s a pump out front.”
He touched his wellworn hat. “I am much obliged.”
He whickered and the horse resumed walking, much faster than it had been going.
The stables were built of new lumber that still smelled of resin. Half a dozen stalls on either side and good tack still up on the wall. Gathered hay at one end.
He unsaddled the horse and stirred up hay and scattered fresh and left the horse eating while he went to the pump. Beside it was a wooden bucket with a few inches of water dulled by a skin of dust. He wouldn’t have thought there was water to be found in this parched ground but the pump gave forth when he primed it with the bucket. He filled the bucket and drank what dripped from the pump and then carried the bucket back to the stable.
A figure stood near his horse and he reached for the gun he wasn’t wearing and then he stopped. The indian turned to him and nodded.
“People live in the large white house,” he said without preamble. “They dump their garbage in a pit behind the jakes. The pit has only been there a few months.”
The indian nodded but frowned.
“It would be better to show you.”
“All right. Let’s go.”
The indian shook his head. “Better to wait for dark.”
“In that case I’m going to go back to that store and do some of my own brand of prospecting. Do you want to scout around some more?”
“There is more to learn here.”
“I don’t doubt that. Where’s your horse?”
“Blacksmith shed at the other end of town. Better if I leave him there. Someone who comes here will only see one horse.”
“Good thinking. All right, then, I’ll meet you back here when it’s full dark.” He drummed his fingers where his gun belt ought to be. “I know you’re taciturn as a muzzled mule,” he said, “but you don’t usually hide your hand from me. This must be something if you don’t think you can just tell me about it.”
The indian studied him. “Eyes have more faith than ears.”
The former lawman smiled tightly. “That’s been my experience,” he said.
The door to the general store was closed again. He walked loudly up the steps and hard upon the porch so they would hear him coming. He felt his beard at the chin to be sure it had stayed in place. Heat and sweat could sabotage the best disguise.
He knocked on the door and then opened it. Out here in bright daylight he couldn’t see a thing inside the dim store. He knew he was skylighted in the doorway but there was nothing to be done for it. He wished he had his guns but they would stand out like a mink coat on a pig in his current getup. He then stepped inside and stood letting his eyes adjust.
Most of the shelves were bare and everything stood dusty in the light turned sepia by the butcher-papered windows. A few sacks of flour and cornmeal and salt and beans. Tins of lard and dusty mason jars and draped necklaces of ambiguous dried fruit. Sacking and bolts of fabric and stacked boxes.
He stepped farther in and immediately smelled dead animal. To the right a short wooden counter was heaped with dirty tableware. Behind this were empty shelves where normally there would be tobacco, snuff, rope candies, sugar. Past the counter hung a doorcurtain made from what looked to be old regiment flags. He had his head cocked trying to read them when they were brushed aside and a small wiry man entered the store proper. “Store’s closed,” he said.
“I beg your pardon. They was no sign and your door was open.”
“Well, we’re closed.”
“I was hoping I might buy some beans and coffee from you. Some oats for my horse, too, if you carry such.”
The man had not moved. “We’re closed for good.”
The former lawman spread his hands at the stacked and shelved items. “Is all this just decorations?”
“That ain’t for sale,” the small man said. “It’s for my family. Trade’s moved on, it’s all we got.”
Barstow dug in a pocket and pulled out a cartwheel and slapped it onto the counter. “Good hard silver help you change your mind?”
Kelly frowned at the coin. “We can’t eat money, mister. And there’s nowhere in a hundred miles to spend it. We need that stock to live on now the mine’s closed down.”
“Was that your little girl I saw earlier? Cute little thing.”
The proprietor shrugged. “I suppose.”
The former lawman frowned at the man. “You suppose?”
The man looked confused, but then his expression shifted just as the light changed. The lawman turned to see a figure skylighted in the doorway. Stovepipe thin and so tall he had to duck his head to enter the store.
“I believe the gentlemen means to suggest,” the backlighted man said in a thick accent as he came toward them, “that every father’s daughter must be a cute little thing to the father, or else there is no hope for us. Yes?”
“Mr. Cojo,” the proprietor said.
“Raymond.” The tall man had long thin jet hair combed severe to his scalp and loose over his collar, with a band of gray at the right temple. He frowned at the silver dollar on the counter and then looked at Kelly’s customer and bowed slightly to him and made a gesture of doffing a hat, though he did not wear one. “Do I presume too much?” he asked.
The former lawman touched his hat. “Why, no sir, that was my exact meaning, though I could not have put it so eloquent.”
The man held up a longfingered hand. “Please. The formality necessary to one who is new to your language masquerades as eloquence, yes?” “ He offered his hand. “Vasil Cojocaru. Though your countrymen enjoy it more as Cojo.”
The former lawman shook the hand. Though thin and pale it had iron in it. “Zebediah Barstow, Mr. Cojocaru. My countrymen enjoy it more as Zeb.”
Cojocaru’s grin showed yellowed teeth. “We will let the simple names belong to simple people. Yes, Mr. Kelly?”
“You say so,” the little man said.
“I don’t believe I have heard an accent like yours,” said Barstow.
“It has traveled far from its compatriots.”
“I’m guessing you live in that big white house.”
“Why do you think so?”
“You talk like a man who lives in a big house, is all.”
“I have not often lived in a house that did not travel with me. Perhaps my speech has grown to fill my lodgings.”
“It is some big house speech, I have to say. You may have to build an addition.”
Cojocaru laughed. “You have a keen wit. And a keen eye. I do live there, with my beautiful wife. And a daughter who is of course a cute little thing.” He lifted his hands to the two men. “But please, I am interrupting your business.”
“No business to interrupt,” said Kelly. “I was just telling him that we got nothing to sell.”
Cojocaru glanced at the cartwheel on the counter and nodded. “Yes. It is sadly true, Mr. Barstow. Agville has fallen on hard times. I see little hope of recovery, to be honest.”
“Why do you stay, then? If you don’t mind my asking.”
The tall man shrugged. “Well, it is home, yes? I am invested here. As for Mr. Kelly, well, he has Avy. Which is why you must forgive him for not appreciating your comment about cute little things. She is—how do you say it? A handful.”
“Handful a dynamite on a runaway wagon’s what she is,” said Kelly.
“Might do her good to be around kids her age,” said Barstow. “Kids go wild when they don’t have nothing else.”
Kelly leaned against the counter. “I misdoubt if kids her age would survive the experience,” he said.
“I certainly don’t mean to stick my nose in, Mr. Kelly. I was only hoping to buy a few victuals from you.”
“Like I said, we need em ourselves.”
Cojocaru indicated the coin on the counter. “You should hold on to your silver, Mr. Barstow. You may have more of it in your pocket than is left in the mine.”
“Can’t blame a man for trying.” Barstow returned the silver dollar to his pocket. “I will say good day to you, then.” He nodded at Cojocaru. “Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Cojocaru.”
“I hope your future prospects are more rewarding,” Cojocaru said.
“You and me both, brother.” At the door he looked back. “Say, are the dogs around here under control? I’m worried about my horse.”
Kelly looked at Cojocaru, but the tall man only raised his eyebrows at Barstow. “Dogs?”
Barstow gestured at a dried turd on the porch. “Less you got some bold and well fed coyotes hereabouts.”
“Ah. There was a dog problem, yes. People leave town and do not want to take their animals, and so they become our problem. It has been taken care of. I would not worry about your horse. In any case you will be gone soon, yes?”
“Soon’s my brother Zachary gets here we will both be headed for greener pastures, and that’s a natural fact.”
Cojocaru frowned. “Your brother is named Zachary?”
“Zee Bee, just like me and our daddy Zion.”
“Well, this is very embarrassing. Your brother was here only yesterday.”
“Zack was here yesterday? Well, where is he, then?”
“He found out the mine was closed and he went on his way. I’m sorry, but he did not mention you.”
“That just don’t make sense.”
“I assure you he was here. I spoke with him myself.”
“Mr. Kelly here didn’t say a word about it and he knows I am waiting for my brother.”
“I didn’t see or talk to him either one,” said Kelly.
“He was not here long,” said Cojocaru. “Once he found out him the mine was closed, he watered his mule and then left town.”
“You see which way he went?”
“I believe west.”
“I have come from the west and would have encountered him.”
Cojocaru shrugged. “I could be mistaken. Or he could have changed direction. Also, I am sorry to say, he could have met with some misadventure. The roads to the larger towns are known for bandits and indians.”
“I’d have encountered that too. Did he not ask after his brother Zebediah?”
“I would remember if he had, for I would have assumed that you were him. So few people come here now, you know.”
“Well don’t that just cancel christmas.”
“If you set out after him, I should imagine your horse would overtake his mule very quckly,” said Cojocaru.
Barstow shook his head. “Not today he would not. I need to rest him up and feed him right. That desert is hard on a good animal like that. I will have plenty of time to catch up to Zack tomorrow.”
He turned away and then stopped again. “You aware there is something dead around here somewhere?” he asked Kelly.
For a moment Kelly looked alarmed. Then he nodded. “Oh, the rats,” he said. “We put poison out for em and then they die under the store where you can’t get to em.”
“Such persistent animals,” said Cojocaru. “They are to be found wherever there are men. Yet they thrive where men do not.”
“I haven’t seen a place yet where men don’t thrive,” said Barstow.
Cojocaru smiled. “You have only just arrived here.”
On the way back to the stable someone hissed out to him. He looked around but saw no one. Then she waved and he saw Avy sitting barefoot on the porch roof of an abandoned dry goods shop. He could not believe he had missed her.
“You should climb down from there before you get hurt,” he called up.
“They’re talking about you.” She nodded at the general store.
“Talking about me? What are they saying?”
“They’re dividing you up.”
He frowned up at her. “Like I’m some kinda pie?”
She clapped her hands and laughed a staccato laugh and then jumped off the porch roof and landed on all fours. She sprang to her feet and grinned at him. One of her eyes was brighter than the other in the afternoon sun and he realized that they were different colors. He had seen heterochromia in dogs and some cats but never in a human being. Avy laughed again and ran behind the stores.
The moon was nearly full and they clung to the shadows as they made their way across town behind the buildings of the east side of the street. Barstow wore his guns and his mask, reckoning that it was better to be caught out wearing them than wearing the miner disguise. As he followed the silent indian he wondered why they had not waited for moonset and total darkness to ensure their stealth. But the indian always had his reasons, and they were usually pretty good ones. He’d said he wanted to show him something, so he probably wanted light enough to see it by and yet not be seen by townfolk.
They moved quickly through the cool desert night and made their way toward the big white house and the little church at the end of town.
Behind one of the buildings Barstow caught sight of an unusual wagon, and he motioned for his friend to halt and they stood looking at it. The wagon had a bowed roof with a projecting stovepipe and was painted a muddy white with brown half timbers that gave it the flavor of a Tudor house. From the base the sides sloped outward to the eaves, which ran with elaborate scrollwork cornices. The sides were set with little louvered windows. Three wooden steps led to a small rear door. The wagon’s front axle was broken and the wagon lay tilted with the rear steps pointing upward.
“That’s a vardo wagon of the Romany gypsies,” whispered Barstow. “They live in them and travel from town to town, telling fortunes and showing pantomimes. They’re not very common, though I’ve heard tell there are a great many more down Mexico way.”
The indian studied the wagon. “Where they are is always their home,” he said.
“And a good thing, too,” said Barstow. “A lot of towns won’t let Romany stand their wagons because they have a hard reputation as cozeners and harlots. There’s talk of barring them from coming to this country. They have their own language, customs, taboos.” He frowned.
“You are thinking of the man in the store.”
Barstow nodded. “I wonder if Mr. Cojocaru has some connection to this.”
“You think he is a gypsy?”
“He could be. Cojocaru’s a Rumanian name, but I couldn’t place his accent.” He shrugged. “Another piece to the puzzle.”
They left the wagon and continued past the end of the ragged line of buildings until they reached the little whitewashed church. They rounded this and hurried across open ground to the little jakes that stood alone like some poor man’s shrine behind the big white house that Cojocaru had said was his. House and church seemed nearly phosphorescent in the bright moonlight. No light burned in Cojocaru’s windows.
Barstow kept his hands on his Colt grips to keep the holsters from flapping against his legs as he trotted to the house. He knew he moved quietly, but he was a herd of buffalo compared to the indian.
The two men crouched behind the slat-walled jakes and studied the house. No light or motion. You’d not know a soul lived there. The jakes smelled foul but the indian didn’t so much as wrinkle his nose. Finally he rose and curled his hand at Barstow and they stepped out from behind the jakes.
Barstow found himself looking at a ten by ten pit dug in the hard ground near the privy. He realized he had been smelling this as much as he had the jakes. By moonlight it was a mottled mass of garbage powdered with scattered lime. Rinds and bones and dumped nightsoil. Beside the pit a lidded barrel topped with a hand spade. White splotches around the barrel showed that it contained the lime.
He started to ask the indian why he had led him here in the dark to look at a garbage pit and then he saw the ribcages. An armbone. A foot.
He studied the pit a moment longer. “I don’t see any skulls.”
“How many people do you think are in there?”
“They are scattered and not whole,” the indian said. “I think ten or twelve. Some are children.”
Barstow hooked his thumbs above his gunbelt and stared down at the pit. “You think this could be those gypsies? They broke down here and got murdered by the townfolk?” He glanced at the house, looked up at the moon. “It would explain why they all seem so nervous. Why they don’t want strangers around.”
The cool wind picked up and the smell intensified. He folded his arms against the chill. “It doesn’t explain Cojocaru, though.” He frowned. “Why would they murder them and dig a pit for them and then not cover them up? They just dumped them in there with the food and the chamber pots.”
“There is no livestock here,” the indian said. “No farms. No crops.”
Barstow thought about that. “Are you saying they ate those people?”
The indian hesitated. “I think it is not that simple,” he said.
Barstow cocked his head at him. “Then how unsimple do you think it is?”
A light moved in the house and the rear door opened and a tall man carrying a lantern came down the steps. He raised the lantern. “Lumi,” called Cojocaru. “You have been in there twenty minutes. Do I need to bring a rope and haul you out?”
In the jakes somebody coughed.
Barstow and the indian looked at each other and then dropped to the ground. They crawled until the jakes was between them and the house. Now they heard somebody shifting about in the jakes. The indian pointed at the church and Barstow nodded. The indian jumped up and ran soundlessly. Barstow followed at an awkward jog with his hands on the Colts. Behind him the jakes door banged open and a girl’s voice called “Papa!”
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
Up ahead the indian pulled open the church door and ran inside. Barstow followed him in and shut the door and looked to see if he could bar it. It had top and bottom bolts and he shot those and stood listening. Cojocaru called something in the distance.
He turned to whisper to the indian and saw him staring at the walls. The smell hit him like a blow. Moonlight from the tall thin windows showed dark streaks on the whitewashed walls, dog turds and garbage on the wooden floor. The outlines of the pews stood in disarray.
“Were those dogs denning in here?” Barstow asked.
The indian did not reply but nodded at the front of the church. Barstow looked to see the splintered pulpit at the foot of the riser where it had been pushed over. The cross had been removed from the wall and lay aslant on the little stage before several piles of scat. A dozen rotting heads alternated with tallow candles on the slanting mainbeam, with a lone longbearded head atop the transverse. All their eyes open and all their expressions different and none of them peaceful. Their neck stumps were ragged and not clean cuts. Three were children, two boys and a girl. One boy’s cheek bore a strawberry discoloration. The girl’s blonde hair had two braids swept back in a circlet, and steady moonlight shone in her unblinking eyes as she looked up at the ceiling as if forever awaiting a reply to some supplicating prayer.
The indian pointed at a corner where clothes and shoes and hats and cookware and tools lay in a heap.
Barstow took it in without a word as he stood listening. No voices. No approaching footsteps. He moved closer to the indian. “Do you think they saw us?” he whispered.
“We were fast and quiet. But the girl heard all we said.”
“Cojocaru’s daughter.” He shook his head and tried to think of what they’d said by the jakes. Though that really didn’t matter in light of the fact that now they knew he was no miner and he was not alone. “Rotten luck she was in there.”
“Nothing to be done now.”
“No.” He looked around the stained walls. His gaze always returning to the pitiful shrine of trophy heads. “How could one wagonful of gypsies murder an entire town? And why would they spare Kelly and his family?” He drummed his holsters. “Maybe the town was mostly abandoned and they saw an opportunity to waylay travelers.” He frowned and shook his head. “But they didn’t rob and kill Barstow outright. And I rode through town unarmed on a good horse. If they’d wanted to rob me they had plenty of opportunity.” He shook his head.
“They only want people gone from here,” the indian said.
Barstow looked at him. “Maybe the mine didn’t play out after all. Or someone found another vein after most of the town had moved on. Kelly, maybe. The gypsies show up and find out about it, and Cojocaru threatens him if he doesn’t give him a stake. They drive the remaining townfolk off but some of them won’t go, so they have to be dealt with. It wouldn’t be the first time a strike drove men to murder.”
The indian said nothing. Barstow picked up a small gingham dress from the heap and held it out and looked at the shredded front and stiffened fabric stained nearly black in the silver light. “But then why this blasphemy? This defilement. It doesn’t make sense.” He tossed the rended dress back onto the heap and looked at his friend.
“Do you think these people are devil worshipers?” he asked.
“No,” said the indian. “I think they are devils.”
They waited a few more minutes but nobody came. Barstow decided they should get their horses and leave town as soon as possible. They could figure out what to do once they were in the clear. Right now they didn’t know enough and they were too vulnerable.
They went out a window and closed it behind them, and then the indian disappeared into the shadows, headed to the blacksmith shed to get his horse. They had agreed to meet up where they had found the miner and his mule. He had no doubt the indian would be there before him.
He decided speed was preferable to stealth and he jogged back toward the livery with his hands on the Colt grips. It was an awkward way to run and finally he just drew the guns and ran with them held low.
As he came up on the back side of the stables he heard his horse snorting and stamping. He had to force himself to slow down and not rush in like some damn fool. He holstered one Colt and covered the cylinder and hammer of the other with his free hand to mute the click and he cocked it. The horse kicked the wall of its stall and whinnied.
Barstow kept to shadow as much as he could and went around to the street side of the livery. The door was closed but that didn’t mean anything. He glanced up at the westering moon. The opposite door would skylight him less but it was still a lot brighter out than he would have liked. Well, nothing to be done for it. He smiled thinly.
On the back side of the livery again he crouched and set a hand on the door and paused one last moment to let the sounds inside paint him what picture he could form. The horse whinnied again and he thought it sounded high up as if the horse were rearing. A moment later he heard the front hooves hit the ground and he used that to yank open the door and roll inside and kick shut the door.
He came up with his gun leveled at Cojocaru, who stood on the other side of the livery holding a half cloaked lantern opposite the spooked horse.
“Don’t move,” he said.
Cojocaru bowed. “The former Mr. Barstow. That is quite an outfit you have on. I cannot tell if you are robbing a stagecoach or attending a masked ball.”
“Hold the lantern out to the side and come toward me. Slow.”
“Of course.” He held the lantern out to his right and slowly walked away from the stall. Behind him the horse kicked the wall again. “I do not carry a gun,” said Cojocaru.
“Then that makes life better for both of us,” said Barstow. He waggled the gun. “Close enough. Set the lantern down. Away from the hay.”
Cojocaru cleared hay from the dirt floor with his shoe and set the lantern down and stepped back with his hands palm-out before him. “I assure you I did nothing to harm your fine stallion,” he said. “Horses are not fond of my people.”
Cojocaru smiled. “It is my good fortune to be Romany,” he said. “But that is not the people I meant.”
Barstow stepped toward the lantern. Cojocaru kept his eyes fixed on him and the smile stayed in place, and he understood that the man only wanted to draw him away from the door. He heard the quick footsteps coming toward him as he turned and a shovel blade arced out of the darkness and knocked the gun out of his hand. He drew the other and leveled it at Kelly and caught the backswing on the side of his head. He heard the echo of its impact fill the stables as he went down.
He woke up coughing.
“Told you I didn’t kill him,” said Kelly.
“I should have more faith in your ability to use a shovel,” said Cojocaru.
Their voices echoed. His ears rang. His head throbbed like an overburdened pump. The floor kept tilting and he felt he might be sick. He was not a drinking man but he had heard a bad drunk described this way.
He opened his eyes and everything was blurry but he saw that he was still in the livery and that it was day. He waited for his eyes to focus but they did not. Finally he tried to sit up and realized he was bound. He tested the bonds and felt his wrists tied behind his back and roped to his bound ankles. He rolled a little and did not feel a holster.
Two tall men approached him and both of them were Cojocaru. Barstow blinked and the two figures drifted together until they formed a single man.
“Welcome back, Mr. Barstow. If I may call you that. Your saddlebags gave no better name. Though they did contain intriguing clues to your identity. A false beard. The star of a Texas Ranger. And ammunition that interests me greatly. Of course I have questions.”
“I’m not telling you anything.”
“You seem to have come after us, specifically. How could this be?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Then that makes life worse for both of us. Mr. Kelly?”
The little man knelt beside him and grinned and set a hand on his shoulder. “I did the little girl,” he said. “She was sweet as a baby pig.”
“Mr. Kelly,” said Cojocaru. “I am more interested in my conversation than in yours.”
Kelly nodded. He remained smiling at Barstow and showed him a folding stockman knife. Instead of opening it he tapped the butt on Barstow’s head where he’d been hit by the shovel. Barstow felt himself convulse. Cold waves spread through him. He vomited and then began to choke. His eyes bulged and his head pounded and redness edged his vision. Kelly punched his back and he coughed again and felt his airway clear. He lay wheezing great lungfuls of air.
“You must now establish some priorities,” said Cojocaru. “It will be dark very soon, and then we will not care about what you know. There will be no more rules. No discipline. Where you are concerned, no restraint.”
“Why should I tell you anything if you’re going to kill me anyway.”
Cojocaru squatted before him. “You think that this is not your fate. That you can choose to live because you have some other destiny. But the life you chose has led you here. To this very narrow place with only a few choices left. You can choose to answer my questions. On that road lies a quick and painless death. Or you can choose to tell me nothing. On that road you are gutted like a lost lamb that cannot even scream because the muscles that permit it are being pulled away like taffy while you watch. I have seen this so many times. It is a pointless nobility. The last minutes of that life have to be the longest. And lead to the same conclusion.” He turned a palm up. “You will choose.”
“I’m not afraid of you.”
“That changes nothing. The pain is the same. The end is the same.”
“Then I’ll die without helping you.”
Cojocaru smiled and touched his cheek and he realized they had removed his mask. “Oh,” said Cojocaru. “But you help us by dying. By dying you do not report back about us. By dying you delay any force that would come against our little settlement. By dying you keep us alive. Your partner will be just as useful.”
“I don’t have anything to say to you.”
Cojocaru patted him like a dog. “Very good. Very brave.” He stood. “Then it is time for you to go to church,” he said.
They put him into a wheelbarrow and Kelly wheeled him to the church while Cojocaru walked alongside. His head pounded with every bump and he didn’t think he could run away even if he were not bound. It seemed he had been unconscious all day. The indian would have scouted back for him when he hadn’t shown up, he knew, but he didn’t think there was much the indian could to do help even if he found them. If an opportunity presented itself the indian would take it, so he had better look for ways to improve on that, else he was a dead man.
He looked around as best he could and saw the sun near the horizon. A chill breeze blew. Ahead to the right was the house Cojocaru had squatted. To the left was the church. Half a dozen people stood outside the little whitewashed building.
He lay back and looked up at the sky. Burnt orange in the west and paling through butter yellow to near lavender overhead. Venus bright in the east. Herald of the moon.
He hoped his horse had got away.
Kelly dumped him at the footsteps of the church. He flopped onto his side and tried to keep his head from hitting the ground. He was picked up by his bindings and toted into the defiled abattoir of the nave like some large game brought down by savages. They carried him down the aisle between the disarrayed pews and dropped him on the little stage. He heard something hit the floor behind him. Kelly looked irritated and stepped onto to the stage to pick something up, and he realized that one of the heads had fallen off the sideways cross. Kelly held it in front of Barstow like a rotting jack o’lantern and shook it by the hair. The wiry gray beard scratched Barstow’s face. The smell of rotting meat was overpowering and he retched. Kelly laughed and stepped over him with the head held before him and Barstow heard him put it back up on the transverse beam of the cross. “You stay put now,” Kelly said. He stepped over Barstow again and off the stage and down the aisle to the front door. He leaned against the doorframe and stood looking into the east.
When the room stopped spinning Barstow made out Kelly and Cojocaru and Kelly’s wife and the girl Avy. A little girl with black hair and a bandaged arm. A heavy woman with long black hair and pale skin set off against a dress of deep maroon. An older couple sitting quietly in an angled pew. The side of his head felt hot and he thought he might be bleeding again. That shovel had to have nearly killed him.
Cojocaru frowned at him and then beckoned Avy to the front of the church. He put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Mr. Kelly, Avalon is at an age where it is difficult to sit by and watch. To settle for what she is given. The wildness in her wants to be expressed. You will agree we cannot have her going after Luminitsa again.”
“I’m real sorry about that, Lumi,” said Avy.
The young girl with the bandaged arm shrugged and looked away.
Cojocaru patted Avy. “I should have seen last time that you were ready. But now we know. And so tonight, first blood is yours.”
Avy turned toward Barstow. He stared back at her mismatched eyes and tried to think what he might say that would dissuade her. To what could he appeal? To reason? To morality? To god? Look around you. All such notions have been abrogated here.
He thought she looked dismayed when she turned back to face the others.
“Moon’s coming up,” said Kelly from the doorway.
The others looked at Cojocaru. The tall man nodded and gestured at the door. “Please,” he said. “I will stay and keep Mr. Barstow company.”
They got up from the pews as if they had been waiting for this permission and they headed to the door. They seemed nervous or excited. Kelly stayed in the doorway and they passed close by him and he nodded at them like some ticket-taker as they filed outside. Barstow heard them talking, moving around. He blinked and shook his head. His vision had gone funny again because Kelly looked distorted standing in the doorway with one heel resting on the jamb.
Barstow looked at Cojocaru. The man’s beard seemed oddly full and covering most of his lean face. “I cannot talk for long, so listen.” Cojocaru held Kelly’s folding stockman knife in a black-gloved hand. He picked at the blade and seemed to have difficulty opening it. His fingernails were filthy. No, that wasn’t right. Gloves with fingernails. “We cannot simply turn Avy loose on you,” said Cojocaru. “That is not bluh.” The tall man shook his head. He seemed bent over in pain. His clothes no longer fit him. “Not bluh,” he said again. He got the knife open and held it before his blackhaired face. “Not blooding,” he finished. “She must hunt. You must be fuh. Fee. Free. Free to run.” He began sawing at Barstow’s bonds. He seemed to be having difficulty holding the knife. The others were getting loud outside. “You run glove. No. Gaunt. Gauntlet.”
He untied Barstow’s ankles and pain flooded them as the ropes loosened and blood flowed again. Barstow got himself to sitting and felt pins and needles in his legs. He held out his hands and felt as if he were watching this scene from a distance. The unlikely occurrence of Cojocaru untying him. It had to be a trick. A trap.
Cojocaru couldn’t seem to work the knife and he threw it aside. He picked at the ropes with clumsy hands like a drunk trying to undo his shoelaces. Barstow tried to keep calm and let the man untie him. Cojocaru was on his knees before him now and holding himself up with one hand at the edge of the low stage and working the rope with the other. Barstow looked from his bound wrists to the man’s face and jerked his hands back. It was not a man’s face at all. It was covered in black hair with a streak of gray above one tapered ear. The nose elongated and the nostrils pointing forward. The eyes pushed close together and the mouth—
Barstow kicked himself backward. He hit the cross and heads fell on him like rotten fruit from a shaken tree. They rolled and lay around him rocking with their horrible flat dolls’ eyes unfixed and staring without seeing. The long beard, the braided circlet and beseeching look, the strawberry on the cheek. Barstow barely noticed. He could only see the mouth that grinned at him like some slobbering alligator, grinned and yawned and licked its chops. What crouched before him now was long and thin and wearing Cojocaru’s clothes but it was not Cojocaru. But it was. It stood on all fours grinning at him and his death waited in its mouth and it bristled and flared and a long low note like a distant passing train came from its throat. It clacked its teeth at him and then it backed down from the stage, and what humanity remained to it was used up as it swung its canid head toward the doorway and made a guttural sound that might have been “run.”
Where Kelly had leaned in the doorway was a thin pale creature tearing its way out of Kelly’s clothes. Moonlight lit the land beyond the door.
Run. Run the gauntlet. Pass outside and she’ll give chase. Her first blooding. How far could you get? Fifty yards? A hundred? And then the flesh ripped from a trailing leg, and hamstrung, and taken down like a straggling calf.
He looked from the door to Cojocaru. The happy leering predatory grin. That face said, I am what awaits you if you don’t run.
Barstow stood. Outside they were howling now. Literally howling. Not the howl of a coyote or a wolf. Not a sound he’d ever heard. It was almost tuneful. The members of the first tribe on the new-made earth giving voice to some idea of music. A wordless paean to the moon. Some tribe coterminous with man and yet unknown.
He felt his neck hair standing up and he knew he had to do something soon. He tested his feet and they still tingled but he thought that they would hold him and his balance seemed all right. He looked at the slavering carnivore some mad god had made of Cojocaru and he nodded at the door. The animal backed off another step but stood poised to pounce.
Barstow stepped off the stage and nearly fell. He got his bearings and stepped forward. The angled pews. The dried fans of blood on the whitewashed walls. The ropes still tight around his wrists. The gauntlet of carnivores moaning outside the door.
He ran between two pews and jumped and turned aside and hit the window with his shoulder. The shatter loud around him as he sailed through sudden shards. He landed amid the fragments and rolled and stood. Pain lanced his shoulder and he knew he’d been bad cut. You’ll have bigger problems than a sliced-up shoulder if you don’t move.
Cojocaru’s house was the closest building and he made for that. His bound wrists throwing off his balance as he ran like some pursuing supplicant. Frantic howls behind him now. He glanced back and that was a mistake. They were on all fours and running after him and they were fast. He had no weapon and his hands were tied and he could never make the house in time.
He was at the privy when the first one reached him. He heard it coming up behind him and he tried to run faster and felt a sudden burn across his lower calf. The swipe had nearly hamstrung him.
He dove into the bonepit and hit hard and groped in the birdlimed garbage and came up with a gristle-ended femur still attached to a wide-bladed hip joint. He turned and swung and the hip joint hit the creature that had jumped in after him. The joint spun away and the creature yelped and he swung again and hit it in the side of the head with the knob of the femur. It yelped and it went down.
The others had caught up by now and they stood baying at the edge of the pit and there was no way out. He held the femur like a club and he understood that this was where he’d die. This nameless pit of murdered bones.
He coughed in the birdlime dust and waited for them to jump down but none of them did. Then one of them circled round and stood facing him alone on one edge while the rest stood along the other three sides. The lone one gaunt and small with wide-set teeth and one eye dark and one eye bright.
They all went quiet and the night was still. Moonlight silvering the ground, the bones, the powdered lime. Pearling the serrations of their teeth. The only god they’d ever needed shining down its blessing and its judgement like a pockmarked skull high up above the mountains.
Their heads cocked and he realized they were listening. He tried to still his breath but could hear nothing but his slamming heart. Then he heard what they heard drumming toward them, a sound he had known all his life, and they arched their backs and lowered their heads and growled, and then his horse streaked into them huge and glowing in the silver moonlight like its own revenant ghost.
They ran at the horse and the horse came on and they broke and ran. The horse did not pursue them but circled back to the pit. He was saddled and the reins wrapped loose around the pommel. Barstow stumbled around the body of the one he’d struck and made his way along the stinking pit and then he stopped. The one gaunt creature still stood at the far edge looking down at him. Then it ran away.
His horse moved to the nearer side and he tossed the legbone aside and crawled from the pit and saw the palomino riding up. “I’ve never been happier to see a horse in my life,” he called out.
The indian leaned out holding out his long thin fighting knife. His face was painted up for war and Barstow had never seen him do this. But he held his arms high and the indian rode by and made a pass with the knife and Barstow lowered his arms and unwound the parted rope. He shook his hands and rubbed his wrists and looked for the other creatures but they had all run away. There was only the fallen one he had clubbed in the pit.
The indian reined up beside him and held out his gunbelt holstered with both Colts and he reached for it like a leper reaching after Christ.
“Where did you find these?”
“Stables. Near a shovel with blood and your hair on it.”
He buckled the holster and drew a gun and checked the cylinder. Five rounds remained. He holstered it and checked the other one and the cylinder was full. The gunbelt loops were empty. Eleven rounds and seven creatures.
Barstow holstered the gun. “They just left them there?”
“They had no choice,” the indian said.
It took him several tries to mount up. The indian knew better than to try to help him and sat watching. His smaller painted horse stamped nervously but the indian leaned forward and spoke into its ear and the horse calmed.
Barstow unwound the reins and took them up. “You know where they went?” he asked.
The indian nodded.
“Then let’s ride.”
“That one is alive.”
Barstow looked down into the pit. He could faintly see the lean well-muscled creature breathing. “So that thing is Kelly?”
Barstow drew his right-hand Colt. “What are we dealing with here?”
The indian looked at the pit. “They are very old,” he said.
“Before your people?”
He cocked the gun and aimed it. Then he lowered it. “Kelly has a wife,” he said. “A daughter.”
“That is not Kelly. Not his wife. Not his daughter. They are skins worn by what you see.”
He raised the gun again and fired. The thing in the pit jerked and lay still. He half expected to see it change back into Kelly but it did not.
He holstered the Colt. “I swore I’d never kill a man,” he said. “I had these bullets made so that it would cost me dear to even shoot.”
“Your oath is not broken,” the indian said.
“I suppose. It still doesn’t feel right.”
“You are here because you also wear a skin. The man you were before is dead. Your mask is your face now. The skin you have chosen is who you are. It has led you here because your bullets are the only thing that can kill them.”
Back at the livery the indian washed the blood from Barstow’s cut shoulder and his scalp and wrapped the shoulder with a strip of cloth damp with some wet licorice-smelling herb. Barstow got a fresh shirt from his saddlebag and threw the bloody one in a stall. Then he and the indian washed their hands with the rest of the herb-infused water and rubbed them with dirt and wiped that off and mounted up.
The mine entrance was a black hole in the moonlit rock. Not much wider or taller than a man and braced with four by fours. Wooden barrows overturned nearby.
They sat their horses and studied the entrance.
“Why would they come here if they don’t like silver?” Barstow said.
“They said it is gone,” the indian said. He nodded at the entrance. “They will feel safe in there.”
“How long do they stay like that?”
“By daylight they will look like men again.”
“Seems like it would be easier to wait till then.”
“Could you shoot them when they look like men?”
Barstow considered. “I don’t think I could. Even knowing what they are.” He shook his head.
“Then this is the way.”
“Just go in there after them?”
The indian shook his head. “No. We will make them come out.”
The indian looked at him and Barstow felt cold.
They lay prone atop a flat boulder and they watched the black rectangle of the mine entrance. Their horses tethered to the barrows out in the open. Both horses sat calm and he was proud of them and he hated himself for using them like this. It had gone against his very nature to watch the indian cut his palomino across a front flank, and then take the offered knife and draw it across the pristine white of his own mount’s hide. The horses had whinnied and stamped and tried to back away but each man had held his horse’s reins and whispered to it with a hand on the horse’s neck. It was the very measure of the horses’ trust that they stood panting while the blood ran down their legs, and when the men were sure they would not try to bolt they tethered them to the barrows and left them there.
They only had to wait a few minutes. The moon was near the ragged line of mountain range and the night seemed nearly daylight to their eyes. The horses calm astride their faint gray shadows. The indian still as the surrounding stones. The fully loaded Colt cocked in Barstow’s hands with the butt against the rock and the other cocked and oddly awkward in the indian’s clenched hand.
The horses went stock still. Then both snorted and the palomino raised a hoof as if reaching for a step that was not there. The stallion stamped and then both horses suddenly whinnied and began backstepping. The barrows overturned and dragged.
The mine gave forth two shadows as if it birthing animate vessels of the darkness it contained. They held low to the ground and moved like liquid. They broke left and right to flank the spooked horses and then stopped some distance away. Barstow waited.
The horses shook their heads and whinnied again. The palomino jerked back at the reins and the stallion reared and its barrow raised aslant. The flanking creatures waited while a third and fourth emerged and loped wide to the left and right and then circled round and angled back toward the horses’ rear flanks. Barstow waited.
Two more came on to stand just inside the line of attack of the flanking two. Barstow counted six of them now. There should be one more but he saw no sign of it.
From the vantage of the two men the creatures’ strategy was plain. The drovers began to yip as they ran toward the horses from behind. The horses went walleyed and bolted forward and dragged their barrows with them. The stallion got caught up in the handles and went down, and that was signal enough for the waiting four. They came at them heads low and teeth bared, and they were on both horses with a suddenness that seemed choreographed. Barstow waited.
The stallion screamed, and Barstow waited. His palms sweaty on the ivory handles of his Colt. He had to wait for the drovers to close. Two were tearing into his horse now and another hung by the jaw from the palomino’s front leg while the fourth went for the soft underbelly, and the drovers were still too far away and Barstow could wait no more. He fired. The one standing farthest from his horse went down and a black fan spread across the moonlit ground behind it.
The others stopped at the sound. Tense as bowstrings and long ears rigid and snouts up to sniff the air. The feral creatures and the frightened horses like some nightmare daguerrotype silvered on the mountainside. Barstow cocked the Colt and breathed in and held the breath and sighted and fired again. Dirt kicked up beside the drover. The lighter slugs did not carry true as lead and he had to allow for that.
The one at the palomino’s leg let go. It was smaller than the others and favoring one leg and Barstow thought it might have been the girl Luminitsa. He cocked and sighted and hit it through the upper ribcage. The creature had some kind of fit. It bucked and snapped and coughed out blood and rolled and snapped and lay convulsing.
The other three gave up on the horses and stood uncertain. Barstow thought he might get one more clean shot before they ran and he took it and the nearer drover fell sideways and lay thrashing like a landed fish.
The remaining three made for the mine. Twenty yards off and two bullets in the Colt. Barstow squeezed off steady and the lead animal spun a complete circle and rolled on the ground snapping and growling as if fighting itself. He thought he’d hit it high up on the shoulder.
He led the next one and fired and gutshot it and it rolled on the darkening ground with great wheezing screams that were awful to hear.
He let go the Colt and the indian pressed the second gun into his hand. He fired without sighting and missed by yards and the animal ran into the mine. Barstow lowered the Colt and sat up on his knees. He didn’t know where the seventh was, but the sixth was bottled up in the mine and right now he wanted nothing more in this world than to go to his horse. It had got itself upright but stood tangled in its tether with the upturned barrow tight against it, and he could see it bleeding from the neck and from the flank.
He turned to the indian and the indian was looking away from him and he saw the thing just as it leapt. Lean and black and longer than the indian was tall. He fired wild and missed and it landed full upon the indian and both fell back onto the rock embraced like wrestlers. He aimed but there was nothing to shoot at that wouldn’t hit his friend and he watched them roll off the rock and drop ten feet onto the hard slope. The animal yipped and the indian pushed away and rolled and came up half crouched and holding his fighting knife. Barstow knelt at the edge of the outcropping and sighted down the barrel and the creature up looked up at him and he saw the silver patch above one ear just as he fired. The round split a furrow in the creature’s head and it went crazy. It fell down and shot back up and ran a circle and rolled and thrashed as if stabbed by a hot poker. Then it went still and stood looking directly at him and the moonlight made blind mirrors of its eyes. He fired again and it stepped back as if affronted. Then the forelegs buckled and it slumped as if praying to some pagan god.
“You all right?” Barstow called down.
The indian held his knife high and then made for the horses.
Barstow hurried down the back slope of the outcropping and came around running. The indian had cut both horses’ tethers and stood holding the palomino. Barstow went to the stallion.
Both horses were bad hurt and Barstow felt like a complete son of a bitch. Despite its wounds the stallion stood unmoving. Facing the mine entrance with eyes wide and rolling and nostrils flared. The blood on its white hide like oil in the silver light. Four parallel cuts along the neck and a gash on the rear leg that had been meant to hamstring. The horse was lucky for all of that and Barstow knew it. But he still felt like a son of a bitch.
The animal he’d wounded in the shoulder was dragging itself toward the mine. He stood in front of it and drew and leveled. It bared its teeth and growled at him. He held his free hand out to one side and its gaze followed and he shot it in the side of the head. He thought it might have been Kelly.
The gutshot one lay panting on its side in a pool of its own blood. Barstow kept some distance and sighted carefully and fired and its limbs went straight as if stretching in the middle of a yawn and then went slack.
The others were dead.
He stayed by the mine entrance while the indian led the skittish horses downslope. He checked the other bodies. The one that had been Cojocaru still slumped forward as if in supplication. He saw where the first bullet had dig a furrow in the top of the bowed head. The second had hit the throat and angled down into the sternum.
“How many choices do I have now?” Barstow asked the body. “How many do you?”
He accounted for the other five. That left Avy. He holstered the empty Colt and checked the other gun and frowned at the one remaining round. He turned the cylinder carefully and shut it and then he folded his arms with the gun in one hand and stared hard at the entrance to the mine.
The indian came back with deadwood and the palomino’s saddlepack over his shoulder and a strip of cotton wrapped around one forearm and staining. They got a fire going and the indian emptied a canteen of water into a saucepan and set that to boil. “I must tend the horses,” he said.
Barstow nodded. “I’ll keep an eye out,” he said.
The indian glanced at the pistol in his hand and then nodded. He left to gather herbs and roots and whatever else he’d need to ease the horses’ suffering. An hour later he was back. Barstow was sitting on an overturned barrow facing the mine entrance with the pistol dangling between his knees. The indian looked at the mine and Barstow shook his head.
“Still in there,” he said. “It’s the little girl.”
The indian nodded and then looked at the sky. The moon had set and the sky was paling in the east.
“This may be the first sunrise I’m sorry to see,” said Barstow.
The indian held out a hand. Barstow started to ask what he wanted, and then he realized that he wanted the Colt.
“What walks out will look like the girl,” the indian said. “But it is not the girl.”
Barstow imagined sighting on the mismatched eyes in that bony lupine face. His mouth went tight and he nodded and handed the pistol over. It looked alien in the indian’s hand and the indian seemed to think so too.
“You were gone a long time,” Barstow said. “How are the horses?”
“No pain now.”
“How are you?”
The indian glanced at his bandaged arm. He shrugged. “A scratch,” he said.
“Scratch?” said Barstow. “Or a bite?”
The indian shrugged again.
Barstow frowned. The stained bandage. The Colt in the indian’s hand with one round left. The emptied pistol in his own holster. The bare gunbelt loops. The lone creature hiding in the mine and waiting for the day. This narrow place with so few choices left.
He tried to keep his voice steady. “Your friend Coyote,” he said. “Is he still out there?”
The indian looked at him. “No. I think he is here with us.”
“He is always with me.”
The two men sat their watch. The wind picked up and the new day grew around them. It grew around the stiffening bodies of the reckoned predators lying on the slope. It dug into the tunnel mouth before them. Transmuted the late night silver into morning gold. The horizon’s crucible forged their shadows, elongate versions of themselves that stretched toward the entrance to the mine.
“Soon now,” the indian said.
Barstow wiped his hands against his legs and studied the indian’s warpainted face. “Is it true,” he asked, “that the Coyote spirit you believe in can change shape?”
The indian nodded. “He plays many tricks on men and other spirits. Some of them are cruel and seem unfair.”
“Our god does the same thing. No one’s ever given a good reason why.”
“They are spirits and they can,” the indian said.
“Maybe that’s it.” Barstow nodded at the gun. “There’s one round left,” he said. “But I don’t think you’d get a second shot anyhow. So you had better make that first one count.”
“What will happen is what is meant to be,” the indian said.
The former lawman snorted. “I think that well’s a bit too deep for me,” he said. He took a deep breath and held it and felt his back grow warm as the sun came up behind him. Held it and looked at his friend of many journeys and but one remaining. The mountains given form by the emergent day. The delineating shape of the entrance to the mine. Then he let the held breath out and waited for whatever would come.