As Valero stood over the bleeding man, a crowd assembled. Those with weak stomachs turned away from the broken skull planted in mud, but the hardier sort knelt for a closer look. Valero tucked the Colt Navy in his coat pocket.
Miraculously, the German had yet to expire. With half of his mouth submerged in muck, he drew sharp breaths, rapid and weak. His eyes moved like they were asleep, quivering.
An old man in pressed trousers and suspenders said, “He ain’t dead.” It was an adroit observation. Through spectacles, he looked at Valero. “How many times did you shoot him?”
“Twice,” Valero said. He answered to smooth his paranoia. He gestured at blood on the man’s shirt, a stain the size of a flower. The other shot was obvious. Above the right ear, the skull was open, the brain strewn.
“Shoot him again,” the old man said.
Another citizen of Grantham, a boy at the back of the crowd, seconded the demand.
Others murmured discontent about an unfinished job. The crowd tightened into a ring.
Valero clenched his jaw.
“He’s lookin’ at you,” yet another man said. “He's scared shitless, but he ain't dead."
Indeed, the dying man, a bully named Wallhausen, held a consuming look of terror. Each second intensified his fear. To the amusement and satisfaction of the townspeople, he suffered heartily.
“Don't look like a brute now,” the old man said. He kicked Wallhausen. “He’s havin’ such a tough time dyin’, I wonder if he’ll be back to haunt us. I s’pose he’s the type.”
Valero turned away. It was distasteful and craven to taunt the dead. As he pushed free of the crowd, moving towards a plank sidewalk, the people descended like jackals to carrion. They clawed at Wallhausen, bludgeoning him, stripping his clothes and boots, and they rummaged his pockets for coins, bullets, and baubles.
“He stopped lookin',” someone called. “He’s dead. It was our bad, sir. Thank you.”
Jesus Christ, Valero thought.
It was growing late. A twilight mix of pink shaded the sky, and a hot breeze, perfumed with horseshit, washed the street. Valero drew his coat tighter. He walked to the classier of the two saloons in Grantham, an establishment called The Nottingham Tavern. He possessed more money than he had in a year, and he was ready to spend it. His nerves held fire that needed released. The fact that Wallhausen managed to squeeze off a shot (the bullet nearly clipped Valero’s knee) troubled him. The German was not quick, but if the shot was an inch to the left it would’ve ruined Valero’s night. Gin, he decided, would settle his nerves. A place like The Nottingham stocked gin. He was tired of cut whiskey.
With most of the town harassing Wallhausen’s corpse, the saloon was empty. The barkeep stood by the front door, observing the scene. He watched Valero approach. He wore a leather apron, and he had gray curls and mutton chops. He was a broken-knuckled Englishman with an accent. He moved aside as Valero entered, and then he followed him to the bar. The counter was lacquered oak without knife scars, satisfying to the touch.
When Valero requested gin, the Englishman retrieved a bottle. He poured the first shot. The man’s hands were scarred and bent like he’d done a lot of fighting in his youth.
“That’s courtesy of the owner, sir,” the Englishman said. “For the good deed of killing the German. Killing a German, I should say, sir.”
Valero accepted the thanks. He tasted the liquor, and then he drank it fully. He placed the empty glass on the bar. The Englishman wasted no time pouring another.
“What’s the real Nottingham like?” Valero asked.
The Englishman laughed. “Never been there,” he admitted.
“Why the name?”
Valero drank. As he hoped, the liquor worked on him. His tension smoothed.
“I was told Americans like Robin Hood,” the Englishman said.
“That’s so. You’re like a Robin Hood, ain’t you, sir? That German was a real menace. I had him here my share of nights, sir.”
Valero shook his head. He knew nothing about the German.
The Englishman was poised to deliver his punch line, but another customer entered the tavern, spoiling his chance at wit. The barkeep’s countenance soured.
He looked past Valero and said, “Get your mongrel arse outta here. This ain’t the Red Cross, mate. And I ain’t buyin’ no more blankets from you bastards. Made that mistake once."
Curious, Valero swiveled. Natives were rare in these parts.
“Damnable Indians,” the Englishman said, “got more fleas than strays, and more beggin’ in 'em than a coin satisfies, sir.”
An old man stood at the threshold. He wore the wide-brimmed hat with a flat top that Spaniards wore, except this hat was pinioned with the feathers of eagle and owl. He removed the hat, and he held it with both hands over his stomach. His air was not that of a beggar.
“Hold it a minute,” Valero told the barkeep.
“Mate, don’t you—”
Valero’s glare cut the Englishman short.
The barkeep hesitated, then he found a towel and made his hands busy. He mumbled philosophically.
“I saw you in the street,” Valero told the old man.
In fact, the native had shadowed Valero since early morning, observing the drama that unfolded with Wallhausen.
“You are Elijah Valero,” said the old man.
“He’s one of them reservation goons,” the barkeep cautioned.
“That’s right,” Valero told the native.
“I am Kin-No-Quah.”
With a nimble gait that reflected neither his age nor frame, he moved to the bar. Kin-No-Quah had long gray hair secured in a ponytail at the back of his head. Intricate lines marked his face. He had watery eyes, in which the iris and pupil blended in darkness.
“Kin is enough,” he said.
Valero nodded. He offered to buy the man a drink.
Outside, men and women moved past the The Nottingham Tavern. Wallhausen was picked clean. The sexton trudged by, pulling a cart with great effort. The German’s naked foot rattled at the side.
Kin sat on the stool. He placed his hat on the bar.
Before the Englishman protested, Valero ordered more gin.
Tensely, the barkeep complied.
Valero twirled the glass in slow circles and said, looking at the hat, “Those are ghost shirt feathers.”
Not only did eagle and owl feathers adorn the bolero, but feathers protruded from the man’s shirtsleeves. Kin was important, Valero decided.
Kin nodded. “They’re not without meaning.”
“Bollocks,” the barkeep interjected. “Get your dollar from him, and get outta here.”
“Enough,” Valero warned. He placed his hand on the counter, showing it was free, flashing a threat.
Two men, finely dressed, consulting timepieces, walked into the saloon then. Their presence defused the situation. The men avoided eye contact with Valero and Kin, moving to the far end of the bar. The Englishman went to them gladly, shaking his head and being philosophical about natives again.
Valero drank the gin. “Well?” he asked.
“He had me pegged as a mongrel,” Kin said. “On that account, he’s right. There are no pure Nez Perce anymore. My mother was Miami.”
“Back east?” Valero asked.
“Same with me.”
“Yet another thing we share,” Kin said. “Like you, I’m a shaman.”
“There you’re wrong,” Valero said. He chuckled at the thought.
“You may not know you’re a shaman. Perhaps, you think it something else.” Kin watched him. “You are of the two minds, but you think it a sickness. I imagine your mother is of the two minds.”
“My mother was a lunatic. If that’s what you mean by two minds, then, yeah, I’m of two minds.”
“As am I. It’s a matter of harnessing or not harnessing a gift.”
“That's not how it feels.”
“I was told you were closed, yet you talk openly to me. That is another thing we have in common. I speak only to those worthy.”
“I’m just tired.”
Valero procured another drink. The fourth shot fogged his mind pleasantly.
“How’d you know I have spells like that?” he asked. “I haven’t had one in half a year.”
Kin shrugged. “It is said you’re a lunatic.”
“You seem sane to me, Shaman.”
“Just wait, Shaman.”
More customers entered The Nottingham. Soon there was a small crowd, and the men began a game of cards. People looked at Kin as though he were leprous.
“The German was a dangerous man,” Kin said.
“The job paid well.”
“Is that what it takes for you to help, Shaman? Wages?”
“Old man, what is it you want? I’m getting one more drink and then going to the hotel. I got a woman to call on before it’s too late.”
“I have thirteen women in my company.”
“Well, don’t brag….” He drank the fifth shot.
“We have pooled our money, and we will pay you in return for a deed of revenge.”
“Another German?” Always another, Valero thought. “Old man, this was a one off thing. It isn’t what I do.”
“Two men rather than one. Brothers," said Kin.
“What’d they do?”
“They made widows of the women of my flock.”
“Two men killed thirteen of your people?”
Kin nodded. “And more.”
“They didn’t tell us why.” Kin touched his hat. His stolid face nearly betrayed emotion when he said, “A great man like you could help us. You and I are alike, so I know I can trust you. We pooled our money,” he repeated. “It’s not an insignificant amount.”
It’s never ending, Valero thought miserably.
“Let my two minds sleep on it. I’ll discuss it more in the morning. That fair? I s’pose you know where I’m staying.”
Kin nodded. “I apologize for ruining your merrymaking with talk of work,” he said. “I hope your woman is beautiful and willing.”
“She’s one of those things,” Valero said.
He placed a coin on the bar and started towards the door. The crowd parted.
Clayton stumbled from the back entrance of Jake’s, nearly losing his footing and falling into the piss yard. On the rim of the cesspool, he breathed rancid air until his equilibrium returned. Swaying, he thought: you can’t trust what you see when you’re so far gone. He attempted to count the drinks he’d had, hoping the action would clear fog, but his inability to count angered him. His concentration scattered around seven. His mind returned to the face in the doorway.
You’re drunk, he concluded. That’s how many drinks. You’re drunk.
The back door opened. A mix of voices and piano, discordant but fast, drifted outward. The air quieted again as the door closed. Lee stepped forward. He clenched a cigarette, drawing on it nervously.
“Why’d you storm off?” Lee asked. He looked at Clayton, seeing no color in the man’s face. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Clayton stood erect, embarrassed by his brother’s concern.
“Fuck off,” he muttered. He wiped sweat from his face.
Lee dragged the cigarette. “That’s a fine way,” he said. “You ain’t sick, are you?”
Clayton didn’t respond. He looked at his boots.
“I saw the cards you dropped. You were sittin’ in the catbird seat, you know? You woulda cleaned us out. Damn pencil neck took the hand again.”
“Give me a cigarette.”
Lee took the cigarette from his mouth and handed it over. “Muggy, ain’t it?”
Clayton shrugged. He reduced the cigarette to a stub and then flicked what remained into the morass. He looked at the clouds and a veiled moon. The evening breeze was gone. It was the type of night where no one slept.
“Now,” Lee asked, “what’s wrong?”
“I saw the old man again,” Clayton admitted. He watched his brother for a reaction. If Lee mocked him, he’d hit him. He was too on edge for that.
Lee shook his head. His voice dropped a register. “Not from in there you didn’t. It’s a pall of smoke, Clay.”
Clayton drew a breath and arranged his coat. The cesspool smelled like ammonia on a corpse.
“The old man looked over the doors. The inside ones. Then he went back to the street. He looked right at me, Lee.”
Lee observed, “All Indians look like Indians, though.”
“It was the old man.” Clayton steadied his gaze. “Medicine man or weather doctor or whatever the shit he is. It was him.”
“You …. Now listen, Clay.” Lee lowered his voice still further. “You killed that old bastard. We killed every goddamn one of ‘em. I don’t know what’s got into your head, but you gotta get past it, man. You’re losin’ your goddamn mind. How many towns is this?”
Clayton shook his head. He balled his fist, and his chest tightened.
“How many?” Lee persisted. “Trinity, Blackwood, now Grantham? He gets around, don’t he?”
“Fuck off,” Clayton said.
The door opened again, and out walked the skinny clerk who was handing everyone their ass at cards. No more than seventeen, he looked like he felt rich. He was sober as Sunday morning, too, which both Lee and Clayton found maddening. Unsportsmanlike even.
“Gentlemen,” the clerk said.
Clayton pushed Lee aside.
“My brother says I won that last hand,” he told the boy.
“You forfeited the hand when you left the table,” the clerk said. “Rules is rules, my friend.”
“That ain’t a thing,” Clayton said.
“It’s a thing. Please move aside, guy. You’re standing in the toilet.” The clerk reached into his pocket. Whether he was going for a knife or gun or if he was just uncomfortable was unclear, but Clayton vented his rage.
The clerk failed to parry the first blow, little suspecting violence, and Clayton’s fist smashed the boy’s mouth and nose. The punch had the force of a mule kick, knocking the clerk against the door, snapping his head. The slab kept him on his feet. His eyes were wide, shocked, and colored by panic. Blood poured from his nose and over his lips. Purple discolored his rosy cheeks. Clayton grabbed him by the collar and twisted until the kid’s back was to the cesspool.
“I won that hand,” Clayton said.
Tears filled the clerk’s eyes. He choked back a sob. Clayton shook him, hard enough that droplets of blood passed between the men. The blood caught Clayton’s jacket, which enraged him further. He thought about killing the boy. The idea didn’t leave.
“Just give him the money,” Lee said.
“You’re a thief if I do,” the clerk managed. Defiantly, he spat blood, and this, too, reached Clayton’s jacket. “I’ll go straight to the peace officer.” He struggled, but it was more delirium than bravery.
Clayton threw the boy into the mud. The clerk landed on his side with a squelch, splashing piss. Clayton started into the morass, determined. His boot sank four inches with the first step.
“Ah goddamnit, Clay,” Lee protested. “Look at you.”
Clayton stopped, disgusted. “You’re lucky I don’t drown you in it,” he told the boy.
The clerk put down his palms to raise up. He was properly mortified.
“I ain’t in the mood to leave town yet,” Lee said. He reached out, grabbing his brother’s arm. “Come on. Let him be.”
Clayton hesitated, watching the clerk.
“Don’t even think about that gun,” Lee said. “He’s just a shithead kid.”
“Yeah, he is a shithead, ain't he?” Clayton turned his back. He looked down at his boot. "What is this?"
“It’s exactly what you think it is,” Lee said. “Goddamnit to hell, Clay.”
The woman pretended to sleep.
Valero crossed the black room, his steps testing old planks. The woman rolled onto her shoulder, putting her back to the door, the window, and Valero. She didn’t protest his absence from the bed. She stretched her legs across the disheveled mattress, kicking blankets free to release heat. It was a miserable night for sleep.
Valero, moving about the room like a restless cat, retrieved his jacket, hat, and gun. He paced the floor twice, considering things, then he left money on the dresser. No illusion infused the experience. It was prolonged, distracted, and joyless. In the end, he paid cash and began the process of forgetting. He left the room.
The hallway was boiling, and the stairwell was boiling, but the lobby, with doors and windows open, proved cooler. The watchman observed Valero’s departure but said nothing. The night air was a relief. Valero stood in front of the building in a shadow at the edge of light. He checked over his belongings, searching his pockets. Nothing was missing.
Grantham stood quiet.
He walked. He wondered at the thing Kin said about two minds. It was an odd way to envision an illness that, for the past decade, tormented Valero. Mental fugues coming and going felt like two minds competing for dominance. The torment was that only one of the minds knew the other’s existence, while the mind that was devolved and dangerous knew only itself. The ability to harness such a thing was as difficult as purging cancer from the body.
He crossed through an alley towards a backstreet of shacks. No motion or life here. These were pitiful homes for the nobodies of Grantham. The shacks waited in a dark line, shutters open, silent. A creek choked with refuse ran behind them.
Valero walked past the row of houses towards the edge of town. He stopped at a corral. The sexton’s cart, now empty, caught his eye. Between the cart and the corral’s entrance, a cheap coffin, cut and fastened in haste, lay across two sawhorses. Valero looked around, saw that no one watched him, and then he crossed the fence.
The coffin was scrap pinewood, old and warped. The box bulged at its seams. The lid lay in place but had yet to be nailed shut. Valero shoved the lid aside and looked at the mustachioed face of Wallhausen. His eyes were shut, each lid pressed by the weight of a penny. Flies rattled in his wounds. A paint-smeared shroud of canvas covered the stripped body. A slight odor, more of rotten blood than dead flesh, competed with pine.
Valero knew little of the man. He knew only what the peace officer told him, and the peace officer had a clear agenda. He imparted what he needed to impart. Valero didn’t investigate the matter or question the town’s motive in eliminating the German.
You almost hit me, Valero thought. You were good enough to do that.
“Shaman, do you torture or congratulate yourself?”
Valero turned, startled. His gun was halfway out of his pocket when he saw that Kin-No-Quah stood against the fence. He was silent in his approach. The native was alone. Like Valero, he defied town ordinances by carrying no light on his person. In the weak moonlight, he was mostly shadow. His hat was on his head rather than in his hands.
Valero eased his grip on the Colt. He looked at Wallhausen and then Kin. He left the lid askew.
“I asked you to give me a night,” he said, perturbed.
“I imagine he is better company now,” Kin said. “I saw the way he was before.”
Valero stepped to the fence. He leaned against the crossbar with folded arms.
“Did you? Yet they bury him like a man,” he said. “If he was bad as they say, I’d put him in a fire. Takes guilt to do the right thing.”
“They were damned worried about his eyes, too,” Valero went on. “He kept looking around as he died. They didn’t like it. Now they’ve wasted two pennies on him. I’m shocked they didn’t cut ‘em out or sew them shut.”
“I don’t blame them,” Kin said. “A lot can happen when a man dies angry.”
Valero said nothing.
“Do you not believe a man goes on after death? His spirit?”
“I hope he haunts the hell out of them,” Valero said, “but that’s just positive thinking. He’s gonna do what he’s doing until flies eat him ragged.”
“A lot can happen,” Kin repeated. “Do they never follow you?”
Valero considered this but gave no reply.
Sometimes, he thought. In a way.
“You, with two minds—imagine if one mind died and the other did not. One mind died and the other lived on in spirit. What then?”
“Yeah,” Valero said, “imagine that.” He shook his head. “What is it you want, old man? You followed me out of the hotel. What now?”
“I want to show you something.”
Valero crossed the fence. He stood a moment, watching, as a lantern glowed at the far end of the shacks. The lantern came onto the street and stayed there like the light of a railroad signalman. Somebody, worried about thieves, searched for criminals in the act. The presence of the lantern got a dog barking. Then another dog responded. Soon a chain of dogs made a din that blew the peace of night all to Hell. The lantern wielder remained in place, unflustered.
“Follow me, Shaman,” Kin said.
Valero followed Kin through the mud to a fenced-in hillside at the edge of Grantham. A trail led upwards to a dark, huddled copse.
“Where are the women that follow you?” Valero asked.
“They are safe,” Kin said. He offered no more.
The grade was too steep for an old man to conquer gracefully, but Kin managed without strain.
Upon the crown of the hill, shielded by trees, one could view the entire settlement incognito. Grantham wasn’t Paris. A few lights shone here and there—The Nottingham Tavern, Jake’s, the hotel—but the rawboned town was mostly stygian. A few people stood outside smoking cigarettes, orange embers marking their height. The dogs protecting the back row of houses quieted. The signalman went inside. There was no wind, even at this height.
“The brothers are here,” Kin said. “I found them in one of the saloons.”
Valero frowned. “You don’t seem surprised.”
“I never asked that you track them.”
“Why don’t you kill them, old man?” Valero asked. “You snuck up on me well enough. You climbed this hill like you were thirty. All you gotta do is pull the trigger.”
“Not everyone can do what you do, Shaman. If I were killed, what would the widows do without me? They’d be very lost. They would have no one.”
Valero continued surveying the town. “How’d you know they’d be here? Or that I’d be here?”
“I follow them,” Kin confessed. “Tonight the stars aligned.”
“How long have you followed them?”
“Years, Shaman. I delight in tormenting the older of the two. They think I’m dead. The elder is of two minds like you and I, and he believes I followed him from the grave. He dreams about me killing him. He often sees me when I’m not there. When I am there, it drives him mad.”
Kin smiled. “I do what I can, Shaman.”
“Your widows go along with this?”
“They are angry,” Kin said. “They want the brothers dead. None of us will rest until then.”
Valero pretended to consider the matter, but he’d decided the moment Kin asked him. When he knew, he knew. He felt a bond with the old man, although he didn’t understand why.
Deeply tired and impatient, Valero asked, “You know where they’re at?”
Valero pulled the Colt from his jacket. He opened the cylinder and gave it a spin. The revolver held five bullets. But he knew the weight of five, just as he knew the weight of six. It was habit.
“Let's go,” Valero said. “Show me.”
Clayton hung a lantern on the tree’s lowest bough. The branch bent with the glass, and an orange glow spread to the waiting horses. The mounts were nervous and fidgety, ready to depart. Beyond the horses was a graveyard with wooden crosses and stone markers. Beyond the graveyard was the road out of Grantham—the Forest Road, which led to Trinity Hill and Bone-of-Wellington. Clayton and Lee decided they’d head north before dawn arrived. The sawmill and logging outfits started near Bone-of-Wellington, and one could vanish there.
Lee finished with the saddlebags. “Clay, I sure wish you’d sleep on this. He’s only a kid. You got his money.”
“We leave now and he sends somebody after us. He said so. Shoulda let me drown him.”
“I wanted to stick around a few days.”
Clayton laughed. “The Indian wouldn’t let me stick around anyhow, so we’d be going one way or another. Besides, I won that hand, and he knew it.”
Lee nodded at the dull logic. “You did,” he admitted.
Clayton moved to the base of the tree. It was a squat old beech with a wide canopy, a tree under which people picnicked when visiting the cemetery. Poison laurel preyed on its branches. Clayton tested the limbs. The lantern shook. Leaves fell. When he found a stout branch at a pleasing height, he swung a rope over it.
“Get him up,” he told Lee.
“Come on, Clay.”
“Get him up.”
Lee went behind the horses, near the fence, and lifted the bruised clerk from the ground. Once the kid had left Jake’s for the night, Lee and Clay beat him senseless. Not well liked, the boy had no protectors. After the beating, he was unconscious for an hour—in that time Clayton decided how to kill him.
The kid’s hands were tied and his mouth gagged with a foul cloth. His eyes were wide, and he smelled like piss. His ears bled. His head was swollen.
“Shoulda just give him the money the first time,” Lee said.
The clerk didn’t respond.
“Think it’ll rain again?” Lee asked. “Nobody’s gonna sleep 'til it rains.”
The clerk glanced upward.
Clayton finished with the noose. He grabbed the rope and pulled himself up on it, testing the bough. The limb creaked, but it was solid.
“Bring him over here, damnit.”
“With the light, somebody’s bound to come lookin’,” Lee cautioned. He pushed the clerk forward.
“We’re followin’ town ordinances,” Clayton said. “Besides, look what they let the German do. They don’t care. They’re scared shitless.”
Lee brought the clerk to the rope. He pushed the kid’s chin up to get his neck straight, expecting a fight, but the boy didn’t have any fight left in him. His resistance was meek.
“That’s far enough.”
The voice, unfamiliar, came from the darkness.
Clayton turned, expecting the wizened peace officer to emerge. He didn’t. A man with a gun in his grip stepped into the halo of light. He was tall with heavy shoulders draped in a black coat. A scraggly beard like coal dust covered his face. He had brooding eyes, oddly pale.
Clayton’s pulse quickened.
“Shit,” Lee muttered.
It was the man who murdered Wallhausen. He held the same gun in his fist.
“What in God’s green hell do you want?” Clayton asked. He'd known nothing of the man until today. Valero, his name was. He’d caught that much via the grapevine. Valero was a gunman and killer, and a few folks claimed he was a lunatic.
The man gestured towards the clerk. “Turn him loose,” he ordered.
Lee didn’t take long to consider, not with his hands occupied and a revolver aimed in his direction. He shoved the clerk towards the horses.
“Get outta here, pencil neck,” Lee said. He raised his hands again.
The clerk, still bound, shuffled. He fell hard but got up again. He looked brain dead, but soon he was away in the shadows, hobbling.
“If it ain’t the avenger,” Clayton said. “They pay you to chase us out, too?” He put up his hands, showing them empty, and he stepped from the tree trunk. The noose dangled behind him. For a moment, he regarded it. “We were foolin’ with the kid.” The lantern inched closer to falling. “Got a tiger by the tail, don't you?” Clayton chuckled.
The gunman shook his head. Flatly, he said, “I got someone that wants to speak to you.”
Another figure emerged.
“Jesus Christ in hell,” Lee said.
Clayton’s attempt at joviality drained to nothing. His color bled. His posturing was skin on a ghost.
The old shaman stepped forward. He had a feathered bolero in his hands, clasping the hat at his stomach. His face was shrewd. He stopped when he was at the gunman’s side.
“It took a long time,” the old man said. “Years.”
Clayton didn’t address the Indian. Instead, he turned to the gunman. “What’d he tell you?”
It was difficult to form words. His throat dried. A mosaic of images blistered his mind: a creek so full of blood it was red. The stench of wood smoke and burned flesh. A hillside with one last cadaver, a shaman who promised to come back for Clayton. He murdered the old man. He shot him in the stomach and chest. He washed his hands in the creek as the man died.
“Men of blood,” the old man said. “You remember.”
“Now wait a minute—” Lee began.
“Both of 'em?” the gunman asked.
The shaman said quietly, “Both of them.”
The gunman pulled the trigger and killed Lee. It happened in an instant. There was a hole the size of an apple at the back of his skull and a mist of red before he hit the ground. His knees went like he lost his bones. Blood soaked into the dirt.
The horses panicked with the explosion, scattering, barreling towards the Forest Road. In their departure, the mounts knocked the lantern from the tree. A fire spread in the grass and across Lee’s cuff, and then it was dark again.
The gunman pulled the trigger a second time, but Clayton took a dive. He drew himself up behind the trunk of the beech. Frantically, his mind hot with panic, he worked his gun free. He fumbled. He’d never been precise or fast. The hammer went back. His eyes were too accustomed to the lantern light, though. He couldn’t see a thing. The confusion and the ringing in his ears didn’t help. He pulled the trigger blindly for the chaos it created.
The gunman came around the tree. He tried to bludgeon Clayton with the butt of his gun, but he managed only a glancing blow. Clayton pulled the trigger again, but the bullet didn’t connect. The man had something else in his hand. With a thrust like an uppercut, he jammed a blade in Clayton’s stomach. It felt like a punch and nothing more. He withdrew the knife and stabbed it in again.
Adrenaline masked the pain, but the nerves in Clayton’s hands responded. He lost the grip on his gun. Gasping, he went to his knees.
The gunman ripped out the knife and stepped back. There was no emotion, no gratification in his eyes. He knew nothing about Clayton or Lee, and it showed. He was eerily blank. The shaman joined him.
“I killed you,” Clayton said. Blood reached the back of his throat, poured over his tongue. He gagged and spat.
“Indeed, you did,” the shaman said. “Then I followed you.”
Clayton rested his head, trying to breathe. “Fuckin’ Indians,” he slurred. He spat more blood.
The gunman wiped his knife clean in the grass. When he rose, he had his revolver out. Without dramatics, without a word, he aimed the gun and mashed the trigger.
Finally, the sky opened and rain fell in sheets, relieving the heat, but the light of morning stood behind the storm. Valero stood just within the entrance of the livery stable, watching and waiting. His gray mare stirred impatiently at his back. She had no love for the town.
The boy who tended the stable watched Valero with a mix of awe and terror. He’d yet to find the courage to speak. Others shared his trepidation. Although Valero had left the brothers dead at the edge of the graveyard, and everyone understood what occurred, the peace officer of Grantham had yet to accost Valero.
Kin entered from the street. He pulled an ill-fed mule with a wooden ammunition box strapped to its back. The box was soaked and dark. The rain had blasted Kin, as well.
Valero gazed past the native towards the street, disappointed.
“I thought you were bringing your widows along,” he said. “I thought they’d give their thanks.”
Kin removed his hat and knocked it against his leg. One of the feathers toppled to the ground. He picked it up, considered replacing it, and then he handed the feather to Valero. It belonged to an owl once.
“For you, Shaman,” he said. “Look at it and remember next time a spell comes on.”
Valero took it. “I guess you can’t teach a man to control it, can you?”
Kin shook his head. “You must conquer that yourself. There’s no single path. Sometimes just knowing of a possibility will help. So, keep the feather and meditate on it.”
“Where are the widows?” Valero asked.
“I brought them. Here.” Kin loosened his hold on the mule’s reigns and stepped around. He lifted the ammunition box and carried it to a dusty table beside one of the stalls.
The attendant watched, silent, his mouth agape.
Valero stepped to Kin’s side. He put the owl feather in his pocket.
Kin removed the lid and placed it on the table.
Valero peered inside.
Thirteen skulls, each hollowed and cleaned meticulously, waited within. Sunlight had bleached the bones. The skulls were packed in straw.
Kin looked on with pride. “Thirteen widows of my village,” he said. He placed his hand on Valero’s arm. “They are always with me, Shaman. I speak to them often. They were with us last night. They thank you and hope the money is sufficient.”
“Holy God,” the attendant muttered. He stood on his chair for a better look. His face was pallid. He glanced at Valero.
“They are no longer angry,” Kin said.
After a moment, Valero said, “We’re both lunatics. I’ll be goddamned. Fare thee well, Shaman. And Kin?”
“Don’t follow me.” Valero went for his horse. When he passed the attendant, he said, “Do that with the German or he’ll haunt you. It’s the only way.”
The boy nodded.
When Valero rode into the rain, he was laughing. His mare kicked at the mud, glad to move on—a feeling both shared. No one hailed him or attempted to stop him as he passed the cemetery and gained the Forest Road. The storm persisted until the morning was dark again.
Valero damned Grantham as the settlement passed from sight.
You can read more about Elijah Valero in the novel
The Hangman Feeds the Jackal: A Gothic Western (Nosetouch Press 2022).